The Story So Far

Conjuring in the Indigo Desert (Day 1)

Today I grew up. Finally. Everyone’s been waiting for me the last fifteen years. Naturally it happened in the most embarrassing way possible, right in front of one of my fiancés and a non-dragon.

I woke up and ate nine rabbits and flew to the Tumult Sands to clean up. The Tumult Sands are a little scrap of desert where indigo sand boils around. It’s never still. It’s like it’s being stirred by a huge wooden spoon from the sky, and like someone with about seven heads is underneath it puffing it up. It used to be sacred to the mhelvul’s gods, before my parents chased them off and gave the mhelvul something more worthwhile to serve. The mhelvul used to tie a spare child of the noble classes upside-down on a heavy iron scaffold there every spring and fall, and let the sands scourge them to death. The desert gods would gather around and lap up the child’s blood and spirit as he died. What good that did the mhelvul, I don’t know. Kept the desert gods from eating them more, I guess. Only, the mhelvul don’t go into the desert, and the desert gods didn’t leave it. There’s nothing there but stirred-up indigo sand and that horrid iron scaffold.

But it’s a good place for a bath. I perched on that scaffold and let the sand blast my scales clean. It doesn’t like me very much, that sand. It hates dragons for what we did to its gods. It leaps up and splashes around me and tries to flay my skin off, as if I were a mhelvul sacrifice and a half.

Everyone else thinks I’m being silly, taking sandbaths there. Everyone else says it hurts. The ichor of the ancient paingods is in those sands. The touch of them is like being raked with salted claws.

I wouldn’t know, though. I can’t feel.

Anyways, nobody else ever comes to the Tumult Sands. Except that morning, Osoth did.

I should explain about Osoth. He’s one of my fiancés. He’s not the oldest — Tultamaan has a dozen years on him — but he acts the oldest. I mean, like he was several centuries old, or sometime more, not just seventy years. He’s eighteen feet long plus head and tail. That’s a touch short — not that I can talk, I’m four feet shorter than that. His scales are patterned quite intricately, curling lines of deep grey and deeper grey on a background of light grey. You can see the spellwork making it grey, though. He’s just a gloomless pastel violet underneath it, quite pretty really, but not the necromantic style. (I’m just a flat black — girls always get dull colors and no patterns.) He affects eight small horns, four of which curl around his eyes. He thinks it makes his head look a bit skullish. I think it makes him look like he’s wearing goggles. And he’s got the same wing-shaped ears and the usual bulbous eyes that dragons always do and skulls never do.

Oh, and he’s a necromancer, of course. I said that before, right? His breath is a gust of some terrible poison dust that he excavated from a cursed grave. He’s got an ordinary fiery breath weapon too, from back before he discovered necromancy, but he never uses it.

Astrally, he’s perfect. I can see this of course, but small people can’t, because this part of him — of us — is in a slightly different world. A pert little whefô, pulsing with the essence of flame and poison dust for his two breaths. Around that a nice symmetrical four-lobed vô, nice and strong, good for breaking spells so well. Most of us have four lobes in our vô, from when the doctor performs the Great Separation, but often they’re not so symmetrical. (Well, the ones of us who survive usually do. Five-sixths or more of dragonets die from it, but we don’t count them.) His thezô is a perfect sphere, which makes sense ’cause he’s very good with magic.

Then his hukuchô is perfect too, a big forward-pointing almond-shape twice the size of his body at least. Hukuchôs are pretty useless really, though lesser beings cannot endure their touch, so they’re good if you ever need to make a bunch of small people run away or faint or something. I keep telling myself that a hukuchô doesn’t matter very much, because mine has a huge jagged ugly rip in it that matches the rip in my mind that keeps me from feeling. I survived my Great Separation but not really very well.

It’s hard to see or aerocept or hear much in the Tumult Sands, so I noticed him as a growl of medium-bitter magic and danger first. Since the Sands are my family’s territory, good manners demanded that I fly up and get ready to drive him off. Which is all very silly. Nobody just flies in and attacks anyone anymore, not on Mhel. And if you’re poaching on someone else’s territory, you wouldn’t pick the Tumult Sands anyways, would you? There’s nothing there to poach.

“Jyothky! Behold, it is I, Osoth, foremost among your fiancés! I bring you tribute! Do not strike at me with your fierce claws, do not exhale upon me the depths of winter which dwell within your inner heart, do not rip at my breast with your deadly fangs!”

“Well, let me see your tribute. If it’s good, I won’t kill you,” I said. It’s good to be polite to your fiancés, especially if they’re polite to you first. Not that I could kill him in a fair fight, anyways. Especially starting out with him flying in high and me flapping like a frantic sow to get off of that nasty iron scaffold and out of the messy low winds of the Tumult Sands.

“I have brought you a rabbit stuffed with caramelized onions, and with efforasze — that strong cheese — upon which you may break your fast this glorious place, with the dust of gods and small people all about us,” he said.

Well, it wasn’t quite breaking my fast. I had just scooped my breakfast out of the hutches, though, and rabbits are much nicer stuffed with onions and cheese. So I flew up to him, and politely snatched it out of his claw and devoured it. If you ever wondered why I’m so tubby, this sort of thing is why. It was pretty tasty. He must have brought it from his home, or something. My parents’ cooks aren’t very good.

“I have inspected your tribute, and find it adequate,” I told him. (That means “delicious”, when you’re talking about tribute. Or “excellent” if the tribute isn’t food.) “So I shall not drive you off with claws and teeth and breath. This time.”

He dipped his head and flew under me for a minute and a third. That’s etiquette, too. If I had been lying about not attacking him, he had just ceded me the advantages of height and facing. In theory I could have attacked him and had the advantage. Of course, if he’d actually been worried about it, he’d have had all sorts of extra defenses prepared. I’d probably have dived into a doomiess of surprise skeletons and flying ghosts, knowing Osoth. And he’s my fiancé and my friend and bigger than me. And nobody attacks like that anymore, it’s all sneaky feuds or honest blood-duels between friends. This stuff about manners is all very silly.

“What meditations do you perform here, Jyothky, in this dustyard of dead gods and dead mhelvul?” He actually talks that way.

“Not meditations, but ablutions, that the scourging sands may flense dry blood from my scales.” I answered. I don’t actually talk that way, but around Osoth I sometimes wind up talking that way. That’s got to count for something. I don’t know if it counts for him or against him, though. Is it imposing? Or pretentious?

“Oh, have you already hunted on this day?”

“Just in the barnyards of my parents’ small people,” I said. He looked a bit disappointed, so I added, “They do not stuff their stock with onions and the greatest of cheeses!”

He craned his head towards me, peering out of his fake eyesockets, his tongue darting. “You have tarried here overlong already, have you not, Jyothky? The blood of the farmers’ beasts may have been cleansed from your claws, but the blood at the corners of your eyes is dragon’s blood, or my tongue deceives me.”

“Sneaky sand!” I keep a close eye on my body usually, but I can’t keep a close eye on my eyes. A tenasensitive peek (that’s a sense observing structural integrity, in case you’re from a tenablind species) showed only the least bit of injury. I didn’t bother healing it. It’s not very good form to look like I can’t handle a bit of pain in front of one of my fiancés. Especially since handling pain is the only good part about not being able to feel.

(Which is a point in Osoth’s favor. Whoever I marry is going to have to pay attention to my little injuries. He showed me that he can do that. I suppose anyone can, but he knows he should.)

(Also, I’m sure you’re wondering why I wasn’t wearing any protectives. I had taken them off for sandbathing. The sand is fierce enough so that any good spell will think it’s attacking me, probably because it’s attacking me, and keep it away.)

“Sneaky indeed, for these sands are laced with the vengeful dead,” Osoth said.

“Sounds like you’d like them, then.” I really do talk like that. I should try to be more dignified now that I’m grown up.

“Indeed. I shall in time rip the secrets of ancient treasures long-lost from the unwilling spectres of the dead,” he said.

I didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted. Pleased, because one of my fiancés should be thinking about his hoard, on the chance that he actually manages to get married. Insulted, because this is my family’s land. He’d bought safe passage with a stuffed rabbit, but there’s a big gap between safe passage and actual treasure-hunting.

So I hissed at him.

“Cterion, your mighty sire, has given me leave to undertake this endeavour,” he said. “Indeed, he has given me encouragement.”

Well, if Dad said it’s OK, I can’t complain much. (When I asked him about it that night, he said he was just being calculating. Treasure lost for centuries underground isn’t doing us any good, even if it’s on our land. And there’s, a priori, one chance in six that I marry Osoth, so treasure that he finds might do us — which is to say, me — some good. So why not let Osoth look? That’s the economics of Cterion for you.)

(I wonder if Dad told him about watching out for me getting injured?)

“Well, can I watch? I mean, I know there are all sorts of undead things in my bath-desert, but I’ve never actually met them.”

“Certes!” Necromancy has some major professional hazards. I guess the worst of them, for dragons, is having bits of archaic languages sneak into your everyday speech. “We shall descend under the shelter of my mightiest spells to the very heart of the desert, wherein I shall bind terrible spirits!”

(Maybe my father’s wrong. Do I really want my children to grow up talking like that?)

We flew down through the messy twisty winds to the iron scaffold. We ended up using my best protective spells, which are better than Osoth’s. Dad taught me the Ulthana’s Targe early on, when it was clear I would never be able to feel. It’s a family specialty. And Rankotherium taught me the Hoplonton. I’ve never been very good at it. But the Hoplonton cast badly is much tighter than the Small Wall, cast expertly, which is the best that Osoth knows. Osoth is very clever with fancy magic, like his necromancy. But I’m better with child’s magic, ordinary things like protection and shapeshifting and language and healing. Practical things. Basic things. The only things that an underage dragon is allowed to study. And since I’d been underage so long, I’d gotten good at them.

(So that means we’d complement each other magically, doesn’t it? Maybe I should marry him.)

Well, Osoth’s impractical magic is very impressive. He churned the indigo sands with his spells, and sieved them with sorceries, and caused them to swirl and spiral more than they ever do in the normal course of events. (Not that the normal course of events there is normal.) He scooped up a heap of broken bits of blue bone that didn’t look like anything more than the ordinary sand, and corked them into a sapphire bottle, and giggled and slap-slap-slapped his tailtip against the ground. I don’t think necromancers should giggle. I think they’re supposed to laugh hideous insidious laughs, but Osoth giggles.

“What did you get, Osoth?”

“Let us torment it and discover, O my fiancée!” he said.

I wasn’t sure how to torment some dust in a sapphire bottle, since claws don’t really work very well on dust. Osoth knows how to torment dust with words, though. Heavy little words that landed on the bottle like a rain of mercury. They looked rather pretty. I can’t work spells with words in them yet, so I was jealous.

The bottle howled as they fell on it. “Depart, and let the dead sleep in peace!” it mewled, in a voice like winter wind blowing through ashes.

“Not likely!” said Osoth. “Who are you?”

“In the grave there are no names,” said the bottle.

“You’re not in the grave. You’re in a little gemstone bottle in my claw,” said Osoth. He added three more quicksilver words which I refuse to try to write down.

The bottle moaned at Osoth’s incantation, and surrendered. “When I lived, Xolgrohim was my name. Mighty was I among the gods of war and pain.”

“Now you’re mighty among the gods in bottles. Did you have any treasure?”

“Wealthy was I when I lived, wealthy beyond measure. Seven palaces of jade and chalcedony had I, and a thousand priests did me homage, and ten thousand warriors brought me tribute. All fell to the dragons, all was taken or destroyed. Now let me sleep.”

“Reeeaaaly? If I open that jar up and dump you out, you’ll be gone for good. No more sleep for you!” said Osoth.

“Is that how it works?” I asked Osoth.

“Indeed it is, O my fiancée, in the simplest of instances. But there are subtleties to the practice of necromancy, subtleties within subtleties. His actual status would be worse than that: not asleep, yet not wholly destroyed. Necromancers could still call him up and torment him. Yet I have means of granting him a less tenuous existence: not life, but considerably more than death,” said Osoth, back to his usual style of speech now that he was talking to a live person. “But more proximately, are you ill?”

“How would I know?” I grumbled. I cast a very direct spell to tell me my general health. Nobody else I know needs to cast that on themselves. “No, I’m perfectly healthy, except for minor abrasions.”

He looked nervously at my hind legs or so. “Are you sure?”

I would have breathed ice on him, being suddenly in a surprisingly and uncharacteristically terrible mood, except that he actually looked worried. “No, I’m not sure. You know that. Don’t ask me such things.” He looked even more worried. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re laying an egg.”

“I am?” Which is about the stupidest thing to say — how could he mistake it? I stuck my neck between my forelegs and looked. Yes, indeed, there it was, forcing its way out of my cloaca: the tip of a gleaming amber blob big enough to fit a dragonet. Or a medium-sized lionness, say. One was about as likely as the other, since I was a virgin. I have protection spells on to keep me from relieving myself at socially awkward times — and I will kill anyone who tries to dispel them! — but of course they don’t cover eggs.

Well, that was embarrassing. Having one of my fiancés see me at a very intimate time is bad enough. Having him notice it before me was hideous. And having the ghost of a conquered god staring also … Well, I suppose every dragon has to do something so remarkable that no other dragon has ever done it before. I’d rather have had something a bit more glorious for myself, though. Like, oh, being killed by a rabbit.

Osoth naturally didn’t realize that. “You are, indeed. Allow me to be the first to express my congratulations on your attaining maturity.” Of course he would say that. The whole mating flight had been waiting for years for me to grow up.

“Better you than that horror in the bottle,” I said. I wished I could have come up with something caustic.

“May I help you back home?” asked Osoth.

Right. I couldn’t just lay the egg in the Tumult Sands and breathe it to ashes. I needed to take the cursed thing to show my parents and and my fiancés and everyone else who might care that I was now sexually mature and the long-delayed mating flight could finally get going.

Without anyone bothering to teach me any adult magic, for one disadvantage.

“I can get there myself!”, I said. That was worth a breath, at least a small one. An ice breath, which is more annoying but easier to heal than fire. (Yes, I’ve got both, and lightning too. I had a long time to study child’s magic.)

Of course, he was wearing the Hoplonton I had given him, so it didn’t touch him. He blinked innocently at me. “Jyothky, I beg your indulgence. Forgive me for whatever insult I have offered to you. But be aware that it was inadvertant, and, indeed, I do not know what it is.”

So I tried to dart at him to bite him. As I write this, half a day later, I don’t think that biting him would have been at all polite. It seemed to make sense at the time. Laying an egg makes a dragonness crazy, everyone says. Even if she can’t actually feel it.

When Arilash darts, it’s beautiful and elegant. When I dart, usually it’s just sort of massive on a small scale. This time, it was all waddly and awkward. Why having something going on behind my hind legs gets in the way of something that’s mostly forelegs and neck, I don’t know.

So I didn’t successfully bite him that time. Just as well, I guess.

He didn’t complain. “O Jyothky! Shall I command the liches of long-dead mhelvul to bring you to your parents’ home, wherein you shall be given a festival commensurate with your new status?”

“What a horrid thought.”

“Perhaps, O Jyothky, you do not appreciate the value and utility of necromancy. The dead are not mighty, but they are many, and with proper spells they are obedient.”

(Which is a point against marrying him. Animata are fine when servants are scarce, but would I want to have animated skeletons all over the house doing the housework?)

“No, I don’t. I’m going home now. Stay and play with your sapphire bottle if you like.”

Well, it was a horrible trip. I tried to fly, but I was too awkward. Whenever I flapped my wings, my protection spells screamed that I was being attacked by a dragon. The dragon being me: flying while you’re laying an egg is likely to rip something important inside of you. So I wound up levitating rather than flying. Dead slow.

Also, it gave all the peasants a chance to look up at me and see me with an egg hanging halfway out of me. Until I realized what they were pointing at and why they were screaming. I wrapped myself in the Esrret-Sky-Painted so that nobody would see me. I did a really bad job of it. Osoth could see me. Not just magioception or dangersense, but out and out see me. I guess I actually was in serious pain or something.

Xolgrohim, in the sapphire bottle in Osoth’s claw, couldn’t see me. And the mhelvul stopped looking so terrified. So that part worked at least.

What to Do When You Finally Grow Up

I floated through my bedroom window, and got Osoth to go away, before the egg finally came out. This is a good thing. I might have had to carry the vile thing miles through the air.

And yes, it was a vile thing. Dragonesses are supposed to be very fond of newly-laid eggs. I don’t see how they do it. A newly-laid egg is sticky and glowy and translucent. It smells rather like everything else that comes out of my cloaca. I don’t know any reason why I should like it better than anything else that comes out of my cloaca.

Older fertilized eggs with dragonets growing in them are a different matter. Once they’ve been cleaned up and the shell has hardened, they smell very cute. This is important for the survival of the species. Otherwise nobody would put up with them for the duodecades it takes them to hatch.

But when mine finally went plop on the floor in the middle of my bedroom, it was a real effort not to burn it to ashes immediately.

Of course I mustn’t do that. Mom had flown into the room while I was squeezing the egg the last of the way out. When she saw me rear my head back, she said, “Stop, Jyothky!”

Well, I almost breathed it at her instead. “Why? It’s disgusting! You burn your eggs up every year!”

“We’re going to have to clean this one up and show it around. You can destroy it afterwards.”

“You never show yours around,” I said.

“When one has a sixty-three-year-old daughter, as I do, it is not so hard to convince anyone that one is a sexually mature dragoness,” she said. “You, dear one, are another matter. Everyone expected you to lay your first egg a dozen years ago, and that would have been somewhat late. Since it has taken so long, after that back injury, best that the evidence be undeniable.”

I did breathe fire, just a little, at her then. It could have been very bad, because my mhelvul maid Thujia was next to her, scrubbing away at some disgusting sticky bits on the floor that had come out of me along with the egg. Mom spread her wings to catch the fire. I presume that hurt Mom a bit (Mom, like every dragon I’ve ever met so far, can feel). Mom believes in Uplifting the Small People, which includes not killing them except for some good reason.

(I would have been sad to kill Thujia too of course. I’ve only killed a few small people, more by mistake than not. Sad and embarrassed — now that I’m an adult I’m not supposed to make that kind of mistake anymore. Also Thujia has been my maid the last seven or eight years and I like her.)

Usually when I breathe on Mom, she scolds me. This time she didn’t. She just looked sad. “Let’s go to the river and get you washed up. Thujia can scrub the egg clean.”

“I’d rather go back to the Indigo Desert,” I said. I don’t like being in water very much. (Flying is a bit awkward for me, since I can’t feel where the air is on my body, but aeroception makes up for that mostly. (If you don’t have that sense, it’s awareness of where the air is near you and what it’s doing.) Swimming has all the problems of flying, but of course there’s no such thing as “aquaception”, so I’ve got to rely on less direct senses to know what’s going on. Usually the only one that’s saying anything useful is dangersense, which is constantly shouting you’re about to drown!. So I hate swimming.)

“You don’t want egg-mucus caked up with dust on your belly,” she said. “I know that very well. Once — after you were laid, but before you hatched — I laid an egg out in the Rasputranus Desert. As soon as it was out I wanted your father, and we coupled in the sands for a long time. Afterwards I had to get three mhelvul with hammers and chisels to clean the gunk off. It was as hard as sandstone, and as tough as shell-leather.”

Embarrassment #1: Mom knows more about laying eggs than I do. It’s not fair! Just because she’s done it three hundred times or so, and I’ve done it once. And she can feel what’s going on and I can’t.

Embarrassment #2: Mom was talking to me about coupling with Dad. Adults talk to each other about sex all the time — and in a lot more detail — but not very much when children are around. Except the last fifteen years or so. They’ve been talking to each other about it when I wasn’t quite nearby, but close enough so that I could hear.

But this is the first time I’ve been included in the conversation. With Mom, at least. Arilash says all sorts of things that a dragonet shouldn’t hear. I know how I’m supposed to respond, too, because I was eavesdropping for those fifteen years. I’m supposed to tell a more impressive story on the same topic. Leading to Embarrassment #3: I don’t have any stories. I can’t even make one up, to Mom! She’d know it was fake, veriception blocks or not. Mom can be an adult at me, but I can’t be one at her.

So we went and splashed around in the river. I looked a lot cleaner. And I didn’t smell quite so much like sticky stinky dragoness, so I probably felt a lot better too. Whatever “feeling better” is like.

But … I have my coming-of-age party tomorrow! I can’t wait! And everyone’s eager to get the mating flight flying, too.

I’ve never been to a coming-of-age party before. Children aren’t allowed. Arilash used to tease me about what was going to happen to me. “You have to go copulate with all the grownup drakes on the whole planet!” she told me when I asked her about it.

“Did you, Arilash?” I used to ask.

“I did ’em all twice, and the dragonesses too! They had to import some extras from Chiaract to satisfy me!” she said.

I stopped believing her when she said she was coupling with other females. I can’t think how that would work, even if anyone could imagine trying to do it.

Ythac never lied to me, I don’t think. He’s one of my fiancés, not one of my rivals, so he ought to be trying to make me like him. I don’t think lying to me would make me like him. Anyways, he said that you’re just supposed to show off a bit, flying and breathing and such. There’s an embarrassing bit where you need to show off your physical maturity. For Ythac that meant producing all three varieties of semen — with just one witness, he didn’t need to diddle himself in front of half the adult dragons on Mhel. And have a doctor proclaim that yes, he ought to be capable of siring dragonets.

For me, I guess I just need to show off my egg. Maybe I get Osoth and Mom to say that, yes, it’s my egg and not a latex model or something. Or not one of Mom’s. I can’t blame people for being suspicious, since I took so many extra years.

Actually, the vile thing smells like me and not like Mom, so I don’t suppose I’ll need to get even that badly inspected. Sniffed intimately, I suppose, carefully enough to tell that the egg is mine.

Coda: Fiancés

Drumet Academy recommends that every essay end with a coda — an epilog sort of thing which either summarizes the essay (if you’re boring) or provides an additional ornament on the theme (if you’re clever, which I usually wasn’t in class). The word “coda” means “tail”. It is a sort of symbolic homage to their long-tailed draconic overlords. I’m not exactly sure why I’m doing a symbolic homage to myself in my own diary. I’m mostly going to use the codas for keeping track of how my fiancés are doing. It will be dull, I’m afraid, but if I don’t do it I will lose track.

Here’s who I’m engaged to:

Ythac My best friend. His scales are delicate blues and greens, he breathes fire and darkness, he’s pretty big, and he’s good at information magic. He’s a bit quiet and morose.
Osoth The necromancer. Grey scales (but they’re really lavender with blue highlights). Graveyard dust and fire. He is verbose and a bit pompous when he speaks to live people, but he’s perfectly comfortable with the dead. He’s quite sweet. He doesn’t have a chance in the mating flight though.
Greshthanu A huge big strong dragon, who will probably come in first. His scales are orange and blue, and he’s all over spikes. Cold breath, combat magic. He doesn’t have a working hukuchô at all, not that it really matters.
Nrararn I haven’t met Nrararn yet. He’s a sky mage or something.
Llredh I haven’t met Llredh either. He’s a replacement fiancé, from offworld — Squeretz I think — after Gorzaldwa got tired of waiting for me and went somewhere else. He’s reported to be big, orange and brown, and aggressive. Fire breath I think.
Tultamaan Rather old for a suitor; he’s been on two mating flights before. Brick red with green chevrons, ice breath. His forelegs don’t work, they dangle floppily and look so sad. He’s a coward, too. I don’t like him very much.

Coming of Age Party (Day 4)

Well, that was horrible.

The actual proof of maturity wasn’t the horrible bit. Dr. Dnazhvhens — she’s my usual doctor — sniffed at the egg once and declared that it was mine, and sniffed at again and said that it would have been fertile had it been fertilized. She didn’t have to sniff me. She knows perfectly well what I smell like. (I asked her later. Boys usually don’t get any more inspection than that, usually less. Only when there’s some doubt about them is a doctor called in to look. Ythac didn’t say what the doubt was about him. I should find out, preferably before I decide to marry him. I guess I can’t count that as a point against him now since I don’t know what it is. Probably I shouldn’t count it at all since it was actually not a problem.)

The party wasn’t supposed to be horrible. It wasn’t half the dragons on Mhel, but it was a hundred forty-four or a hundred sixty-eight or so. So more than a sixth of them. No mhelvul, no small people. This was something that’s about dragons, and nobody that we’ve conquered gets to see it or know anything about it.

(Probably because they’d just tell a dragonet and that would spoil the fun of the newly-mature dragons trying to scare them. It’s not much different from, oh, Rankotherium’s multiple-of-144-year birthday that we celebrated a while back. Except he got more dragons, plus lots of small people.)

So it was a party. It started off pretty nice. Mhelvul really weren’t invited. They covered a great deal of the castle’s courtyard with food, though, before we drove them off. Mom and Dad made them work all night. Except for Annamhyv. Annamhyv was going to go get married that night, she’d been telling us about it and planning it for a year and a half. Dad didn’t want her to go. Mom got all Uplifting the Small People. She bit Dad’s wing, and told Annamhyv that she, Mom, would take her, Annamhyv, to the wedding hall a third of an hour before the wedding, or he, Dad, would pay for the next slaves out of his own personal hoard because if we didn’t let her, Annamhyv, go to her own wedding, we wouldn’t be able to levy any worthwhile servants anymore ever again.

Which doesn’t make much sense to me either way. I suppose they’re just tense about having so many dragons visiting tomorrow. It’s not like there’s not going to be enough food at the party, or enough small people to do the cooking. Annamhyv isn’t even a very good cook. We mostly have her making leather things or doing masonry. What if she stuffs a sheep with bricks instead of efforasze by mistake. Or by “mistake” … she might be upset at missing her wedding and do something wrong on purpose. Slaves do that a lot, I hear, and even servants do it sometimes. Then we’d probably have to kill her, and an awful sort of wedding present that would be for her. Well, Mom and Dad would — I’ll be off on my mating flight. (!)

Anyways. There was plenty of food. There were roast cattle stuffed with squids and onions. There were roast cattle stuffed with mushrooms and eggs. (bird eggs! If anyone tries to eat my egg I’ll kill them. Not out of maternal instincts. I don’t think I have any maternal instincts. I’ll kill them preemptively so they can’t complain how vile stuff that comes out of me tastes.) There were ratites stuffed with scallops, and ratites stuffed with game birds and grass, and ratites stuffed with spicy peppers and dried yogurt. I’m pretty sure the local ranchers had lots of ratites hatch this year. There were rabbits stuffed with caramelized onions and strong cheese. (Osoth’s rabbit was better. We need new cooks, especially ones who are good at cooking.) There were rabbits stuffed with crushed small fishes. There were salmons stuffed with garlic and fermented snakes, because I like them, even though it’s not a good season for salmon. That’s how you could tell it was my party.

Everything was stuffed. That’s the style for a dragoness’s coming of age. If it were a drake, everything would be skewered instead. I won’t explain why because I don’t think I need to. That’s one of the big secrets which dragonets must never be told. If you’re underage and reading this, act surprised and amused when they tell you about it.

Oh, and you’re supposed to start the dancing too. All the other dragons land. You jump out of a window on the castle’s tower (or whatever you’ve got), and fly around. Oh, and you breathe a lot. Not at anyone. It’s a supposed to be happy sort of party. Just into the air, or at cliff walls, or whatever.

Oh, and in the “supposed to be happy” bit. I showed off all three breath weapons. Most dragons only learn one. A few have two but usually only one is good and the other is a hobby or a half-learned false start, like Osoth and his graveyard and fire breaths. So I got a lot of adults thumping their tails on the ground when I showed the lightning after the fire and the ice. (Not that there’s any much point to having three, or even two. I had to do something while younger dragons than me were learning real sorcery, though. And dragonets are supposed to work on their breath weapons.)

Then everyone who wants to, also dances. And by “dances” I mean “flies around in a very small space above the castle and breathes their brightest breaths and tries to intimidate their friends without actually attacking them.”

And by “friends” I mean “dragons you try to intimidate.” Enemies are dragons you try to hurt.

Lots of dragons were my friend at that party. I was pretty thoroughly intimidated. Even a big, strong dragon could feel intimidated with so many other big, strong dragons around. And I’m not very big and not very strong.

Still, I got to meet the rest of my fiancés.

Nrararn

I was trying to decide between another slice of salmon (spicy!) or a slice of ratite stuffed with peppers (spicier!) when a youngish drake spiralled down and stopped just over the table. Spiralling is pretty hard, if you’re doing a tight twirly spiral in a crowded place like he was. He wasn’t very big for a boy, eighteen feet of body. That meant he was a sorcerer of some sort, because too much sorcery stunts your growth. His scales were a beautiful light blue. He had bright blue eyes and a single bright blue twirly horn in the middle of his forehead. And a sort of a blue-white mane, starting right after the horn and going to the base of his tail. It was a pretty mane, too. It was full of little lightning bolts that kept the hair upright.

“Congratulations!” he said to me, like everyone else had been.

“Thank you!” I said back to him, like I had to everyone else.

“I’m Nrararn” he said. I looked blank a second too long. “We’re engaged, you and I.” he added.

Oh, right, that Nrararn. “Oh!” I said. I am fortunate to be such a witty and eloquent dragoness.

“I’m glad to finally meet you,” he said.

“Me, too.” What do you say to someone you’re engaged to and are meeting for the first time? “What do you breathe?”

“Lightning, like you.” He said it as if he expected to please me with it. That’s not very smart. Better to point out that his breath complements my fire and ice breaths.

“That makes sense. You’ve braided lightning in your mane, too,” I said.

He beamed. His fangs are short and a bit curled, and the left top one is rather scraped. “Do you like it?”

“I do, truly. It’s quite pretty.” Which was just true, since it was quite pretty. In retrospect, I do not know why my fiancé was trying to get me to praise him. If anything, he should have been praising me, since (1) I’m the dragoness, and (2) it was my party. Maybe he was nervous at meeting his fiancée. Maybe he wanted a bit of reassurance that he had a bit of a chance in the mating flight (which he didn’t), that he wouldn’t waste several years trying to marry some dragonesses who don’t have the least bit of regard for him (which he would).

I’m not going to choose my husband based on the color of his mane, though.

Llredh

As that straightforward admission was extracted from me, I must have twitched my tailtip or some such. A rather large orange and brown dragon with lots and lots of spikes (who turned out to be Llredh) swooped down and reached for Nrararn with sets of glittering claws.

Nrararn was already dodging as Llredh started his strike. At first it looked like Nrararn was a very elegant fighter, not all that big but very accurate. (I’d like to fight like that. It takes lots of practice, though, and I’ve never had the patience.) But there were sneaky little air spells whispering to Nrararn. I don’t think that Llredh noticed them, but they were there. Nrararn isn’t actually a good fighter at all, it looks like, but he uses sky magic to help him fight. That’s clever. As long as he’s in the air, or his foe is, it’s clever.

Nrararn then proved that he wasn’t a very elegant fighter by snapping at Llredh’s tail as he flew past, and missing. Whispery windy warnings aren’t much good for biting tails, I guess. I probably would have breathed at Llredh in that situation. I probably would have missed him and scorched the banquet table (woeful!) or one of the guests (dangerous!).

Anyways, Llredh turned and landed next to me. “This scrawny boy, he is being a pest or a pestilence? His neck, I will bite it!”

“This sparkly boy is amusing me! I am investigating how pretty he is,” I said.

“Very pretty. His prettiness will serve you well when he tries to defend you and your unborn dragonet,” said Llredh.

“You sound like you’re engaged to me too. You’re Llredh, right?” I asked him. This was an easy guess, since Llredh was the only fiancé I hadn’t met, and his colors were right. His family is from some other world — he grew up there — and he lives on the other side of Mhel.

“The mighty Llredh, that is me,” he said.

“The mighty but not terribly clever Llredh, that is you,” said Nrararn.

“The cleverness, you think too highly of it. Will it protect your neck when I land with great heaviness upon your back and bite, bite, bite?” asked Llredh.

The traditional answer to that sort of threat is some sort of blustery brag. Ythac would have said something like, “A clumsy lizard like you? You would miss, and land with great heaviness on the ground, and it is I would bite, bite, bite.”

Nrararn just grinned. “Try it and see!” Which made sense. His mane was full of lightning, and went the whole length of his back. Landing on that would probably hurt.

“On the mating flight, I surely will. Hunting we will go, you and I, but only I shall return,” said Llredh.

“I’m definitely not marrying anyone who kills off my other fiancés,” I said.

Llredh lashed his tail. “Bah! There are too many drakes already. A few inferior ones will not be missed.”

“And our fiancée has quite clearly implied that she would miss me. Which leaves one of the three of us to be inferior, and it’s not me, and it’s not her,” said Nrararn.

Llredh lashed his tail again. This time he demonstrated his inferiority by accidentally swatting the redoubtable Rankotherium with it, as that redoubtable lizard was standing by the table lecturing my mother about the salmon.. Rankotherium being Rankotherium, and thus exceedingly redoubtable, Llredh’s tail did not actually touch Rankotherium. It got caught in one of Rankotherium’s sticky sparky protective spells. Probably the Quarnish Reek, since it didn’t smell very nice and it ate several scales off Llredh’s tail.

Rankotherium reared his redoubtable head covered with heavy red scale plates and four redoubtable and very sharp and forky antlers, and glared at Llredh. He said, “Ah, the young Llredh. This would be an excellent time to practice the noble art of apology, would it not?”

Llredh allowed as how it was, quite likely, such an excellent time.

Rankotherium looked at him redoubtably. I hope that, when I’m a grand of years old, I shall be able able to look redoubtably like that. (But I doubt it. I’m sure the only redoubtably I shall be doing is doubting things like that twice.)

Nrararn and I floated and slithered away, behind my aunt and uncle. They were ripping apart a ratite and feeding bits of it to each other, and giving each other very sizzly looks.

Nrararn tried to give me a sizzly look too. I didn’t sizzle back. Which is bad of me, since we are engaged, and when the mating flight actually starts flying we ought to be copulating frantically at every opportunity or we’re doing it wrong. I’m not a very sizzly sort of dragoness though. So we chatted about very ordinary things, our favorite foods and our first kills and our best kind of music and suchlike whatnots. He talks well.

Greshthanu

And of course Greshthanu had to come poke at Nrararn too. Greshthanu is a neighbor, so he knows how to behave. He didn’t step on anyone or thump anyone with a stray coil of tail.

I waved my forewing in his face. “Greshthanu! Come meet Nrararn. We’ll be spending a lot of time with him over the next while.”

Greshthanu spread his barbels. “Ho, my pleasure! We shall have many memorable contests, I am sure!” He peered a bit more closely. “You would seem to be a sorcerer of some sort, would you not?”

Nrararn smiled back. “My pleasure as well. Yes, I am a sorcerer of sorts.”

“What sorts?” barked Greshthanu.

“Well, the obvious ones,” said my lightning-wrapped fiancé, his attendant sylphs dancing around his head.

“Don’t like guessing games so much, Nrararn,” said Greshthanu. He grinned. “Yeah, I know you’ll use that against me. Every time you do, I’ll accept if you’ll accept a Caramelle against me.” (That’s a kind of duel.)

“And from everything I hear, you’ll do pretty well in fights,” said Nrararn. “That sound fair. I’m a sky mage: winds, storms, airy spirits, and, of course, a plentiful supply of lightning.”

Greshthanu sat on a big stone, and arched his head up. “Fair’s good. I like fair. Hey, speaking of fair, how’d you get the extra mating flights?”

Nrararn blinked at Greshthanu. “I have extra mating flights?”

“Don’t you? Isn’t this your third?”

Nrararn spread his wings a bit. “No…”

I stuck my head up. “You’re thinking of Tultamaan; it’s his third.”

“Tultamaan’s been on mating flights?” asked Greshthanu.

“Oh, yes. He came in last in both of them. He was gone about the same time you were off in the jungle doing whatever it was you were doing in the jungle, so I supposed you missed it,” I said.

“Must be that,” Greshthanu said.

“You know each other socially?” asked Nrararn.

“Oh, sure. Jyothky and Arilash and Osoth and Ythac and I, we all live around here, we see each other a few times a year. You and Llredh, you two are new. I haven’t met Llredh,” Greshthanu answered.

Nrararn looked worried, and said “oh” in a rather small voice.

“Don’t worry, sparky little wizard!” boomed Greshthanu. “Mating flight’s pretty long. After a year or two, old friendships hardly matter. That’s fair about a mating flight!”

“Maybe that’s why they’re so long,” I mused. “Twelve years seems like an awfully long time to me.”

“Twelve years if we play it to the end,” said Nrararn. “Mostly they end rather earlier than that.”

“I must amend myself. Six or seven years sounds like an awfully half-long time to me.”

“I hear it goes pretty fast! All the twining you like!” laughed Greshthanu. “And you get six of us to play with, too. Plenty of variety.”

I flattened my ears at him. I shouldn’t have done. yet.

“Aww, poor Jyothky. You’ll like it when you get used to it!”

I sort of pried my ears off my scalp with my wingclaws. “I hope so. Everyone else does.” I am actually rather worried about this topic, since the part of sex that everyone else talks about liking the most is how it feels.

“How did Tultamaan get three mating flights?” asked Nrararn. I think he was rescuing me from being embarrassed, so I was grateful. Of course he’ll be one of the six drakes twining me in a few days.

“He’s the king’s oldest nephew and kind of favorite, and the king really sat on my parents and the other girls’ about who would go on this mating flight,” I said, and pointed a wing. “They’re flying together now. Trust Tultamaan to spend more time with his important uncle than with his fiancée.”

Greshthanu leaned his head down to me. “You’re offended? I didn’t think you liked him all that much.”

“I don’t, he’s not a bit nice to be around. I will try to be polite to him, and give him a fair chance,” I said.

Greshthanu nodded. “I like fair.”

Nrararn curled his tail. “Well, most of us only get one try at a mating flight. He’s had two extras. Do you like that?”

Greshthanu nodded again. “Yeah, I like that.”

“Oh? Why is that fair?” asked Nrararn, tossing his mane.

Greshthanu laughed. “Oh, Nrararn, it’s not fair. But I’d rather be competing against a drake who’s such an expert at losing. Better than another fresh young drake like you, all full of skills and enthusiasm, with who knows what sort of surprises for me!”

Nrararn laughed with him. “I’m glad to be competing with you, Greshthanu. It should be more fun than with Llredh.” He spread his barbels and smiled at me. “And it should be fun competing for you. I’m glad I came here today. Not that I was about to miss it of course!”

I smiled back at him, a girlish sort of smile (viz. without barbels). I’m sure I didn’t seem the least bit terrified of the prospect. I had been sure to put scent-distorting spells on before the party, though.

Ythac

My best friend Ythac and his father Rankotherium flew to the party together. This is natural, since they were both coming from Pdernuz. This is also foolish, since they were fighting by the time they got here, as anyone who had ever met them both knew they would be.

«Congratulations and all of that,» wrote Ythac. A while ago I let him cast the Horizonal Quill on me, so that we can scribble messages to each other from far apart. I imagine his notes scratched on a waxboard with a claw-tip. He said he imagines my notes burned on planks. He’s good at language and information magic, probably because Rankotherium doesn’t think that’s very useful.

[Note: It’s the Horizonal Quill, not the Horizontal quill. It reaches as far as the horizon. It is not lying flat. -Jy+BB]

«I accept that in the spirit it was offered. And a better one, since you smell like you’re ready to rip someone’s wings off.» You can’t smell or anything through the Horizonal Quill, of course; it only shows what a pen can write. But I know Ythac pretty well.

«My father’s, or mine, I’m not sure which.»

«Well, wait ’til after my party. I’d like to keep the actual bloodshed down to a minimum,» I wrote back selfishly.

«I want something in exchange if I do that!» he wrote. He perched on the curtain wall across the courtyard from me, and started a conversation with Tultamaan about winemaking.

«You can’t have that ’til we leave for the mating flight!» Not that Ythac has ever made an improper advance on me, the way Greshthanu and Tultamaan did.

«Well, if I can’t have that, how about something else? My father has been insisting that I congratulate you effusively. He still wants us to get married right away.» Rankotherium has been sneakily maneuvering for that for duodecades. But when I marry Ythac — or anybody — I’m going to do it properly. Eloping is tantamount to coming in last in your mating flight.

«Why, of course I’ll marry everyone who congratulates me effusively! Wouldn’t anyone?»

Across the courtyard, Ythac smirked at me. «I think you’re mistaking Arilash for yourself. Anyways, would you mind terribly if, as the price of peace, I appear to ignore you completely and not say a word to you?» He listened attentively as Tultamaan discussed soil quality or something.

«Rankotherium will be annoyed!» I actually like Rankotherium, who has been friendly and kind. But I don’t mind helping Ythac tease him. «Actually, want me to pretend to get offended and come over and swat you for snubbing me, sometime when he’s watching?»

«Wait, are you annoyed at me, enough to swat me?» His handwriting had gone scribbly with haste.

«I laugh! No, I’m just conspirey with you.»

«Oh, good. I am happy for you, really!»

«But you can’t miss one of your last chances to stick lice under your father’s scales. I understand that!» I wrote back.

«Exactly!»

At which point the king waddled over and started congratulating me. «Sorry Ythac, I need to spew forth polite etiquette over here a bit.»

Tultamaan

“I have been Tugging on your Tail for the last six minutes, but you have not become Aware of that fact,” Tultamaan said in my ear.

I looked over my shoulder, confirmed that he was indeed tugging on my tail, and glared. “I can’t feel, Tultamaan.”

“You have Mentioned this to me before. It is sure to arise as a Crucial Topic in any conversation that we Indulge in. Inevitably it is followed by a Catalog of your spells for becoming Aware of Circumstances which are occurring to you. My magioception being superior to your feeling, it is Clear To Me that your the Sentrydog has been trying to catch your attention for quite some time,” smirked Tultamaan.

I glared at the Sentrydog. It’s not a very good spell. Actually it’s a perfectly fine spell for dragons like Arilash who don’t have dangersense. It’s just not designed to report light, friendly touches. Which Tultamaan knows perfectly well. So I hissed at him, “Next time you want to get my attention, try one of the nineteen senses I do have. You could probably manage kineception” — that’s awareness of moving things — “or maybe hearing” — that’s awareness of sounds. “I’m not so sure you could manage to make yourself visible to dangersense.”

(Honestly, Tultamaan roars with potential menace to dangersense just as much as any other slightly crippled dragon. He’s roughly as dangerous as I am. In a party of a gross or more dragons, and him not attacking me, he certainly doesn’t stand out.)

He hissed at the insult. “There is more to being Dangerous than the use of Foreclaws. I hunt krakens in the Seas of Graulfnir!” To remind me that he’s got important relatives in more than one world, I suppose, as well of his cold breath and utterly ordinary fangs. “Some of those of us with Handicaps choose to experience a full and expansive Life despite a few Little Problems. Others are Not So Adventurous and prefer to avoid Interesting and probably even Enjoyable Situations.”

“You get to twine me on our mating flight. Not before,” I snapped. A few eavesdropping adults chuckled at my vulgarity.

“I do not strictly refer to that degree of Intimacy, Jyothky, but to any sort of Broadening Experience,” said Tultamaan. “You could have travelled in the Entourage of the King to other worlds.”

“And I could have stayed away from my doctor for a year and maybe never grown up,” I snapped. “We’ve had this argument before.” We hadn’t really, but I was fairly sure that I had told him that when I turned down his invitation.

“It is of Very Little Consequence anymore. The trip was a success despite your Conspicuous Absence,” said Tultamaan. I suppose it was, since the king put Tultamaan into our mating flight when they got back. “Though there will be further opportunities for Merriment of All Sorts when we travel together.”

I looked around for Llredh, but unfortunately my orange and spiky fiancé was deep in a conversation with my mother, and not available to rescue me from the one of his rivals I actually did want to be rescued from. The useless beast.

Roroku

So that part was all fine. That part that wasn’t fine was Roroku.

Roroku has every right not to be fine. She and Arilash are my rivals. Actually, Roroku usually has been pretty nice to me, and Arilash acts more like an older cousin than a rival. It’s not like I’m much of a threat to either of them. (We don’t really need to have a mating flight. Roroku will be first, Arilash will be second, and I will be third or last depending on how much effort Roroku and Arilash spend on defeating me. That’s how it will go.)

(On second thought, there is a point. The drakes have to try to impress us, so that we can choose who marries who. I’ll have my choice of four, at least. That’s not so bad. I can’t really see either Roroku or Arilash wanting Osoth, either. There should be someone left who’s at least a friend, if I decide I want that, even if Ythac gets picked, which he might. And Nrararn was pretty, at least. I didn’t want to set my sights as high as Llredh; Roroku or Arilash would probably pick him.)

I should cross that out, though. It’s wrong.

Late in the party, Arilash’s father flew up higher than anyone else, and shouted in a very loud voice, “And come to our home tomorrow! Arilash and Roroku and Jyothky and six young boys will be going off for their mating flight!”

Which got a chorus of “Finally!”s and things like that. But dragons were more glad for us than anything else.

But then Roroku flew up next to him, and shouted, “You’ll have to wait a few more days. I don’t think any dragon in the mating flight is really suitable for me. So I’ve arranged to change places with Csirnis of Chiriact.”

Which got a chorus of rather angry hisses and growls and gracks from several of us, mixed in a sea of snickers from most of the guests.

My fiancés all were furious. She had said, in front of a sixth of the dragons on Mhel, that they weren’t suitable mates for her. Chiriact is an old rich dragon-world. Mhel is more of a minor frontier. She declared that she was worthy of the scion of an old rich powerful famous family, and they certainly didn’t qualify.

And, of course, the mating flight would be delayed even more. A few days on top of fifteen years doesn’t seem like that much. But having finally gotten the chance to go, and have it delayed yet again, is a grave insult.

I was nearly as angry myself, though. She didn’t say “no drake is suitable.” That would have been bad enough, since I’m going to be marrying one of those drakes who isn’t suitable for Princess Queen Grandiose Roroku.

She said “nobody is suitable”. Like, Arilash and I aren’t suitable rivals for her. Nor suitable companions either. It’s not enough that she’d be first dragoness, with only a little challenge from Arilash and less from me. She doesn’t even consider us worthy to challenge her.

And she announces this to a sixth of the dragons on Mhel. At my coming-of-age party.

It’s usually not very good manners to attack anydragon else at your party. I didn’t think that I could look any more foolish than I already did, though. Unfortunately she was wearing the Ulthana’s Targe, and my lightning just sizzled around her and didn’t do very much. I should have expected anydragon to wear her best defensive spell before making an announcement like that. I should have looked, claw it!

So I wound up looking rude and ineffectual. Just the thing for a happy coming-of-age party.

A while afterwards she flew down to me. “I’m sorry, Jyothky. I just got the word back from Chiriact yesterday, and didn’t have time to tell anyone else. And I really was trying to get a mating flight that would leave sooner, more than about the quality.”

But she had illusion spells all around her that blocked veriception. Like everydragon usually does. She could have been telling the truth, for all I could tell. I’d guess half-truth: she wanted a flight that left sooner, but she didn’t think much of anyone else in the flight. Maybe half-truth about finding out about it yesterday, too. I’ll bet she pushed the issue with them right after she heard about my egg.

I exercised all my wit and diplomacy, and said, “Quite all right.” Yes, this exercised all my wit and diplomacy. Not to come up with a clever phrase. To avoid attacking her and getting even more embarrassed. Or to avoid crying.

Nrararn, at my flank, said “Quite all right, truly. We who remain faithful are getting the better part of the bargain. Even if they send us a two-winged one-eyed brutal idiot, we will be far and away the exchange up.”

Roroku hissed at him. “It is I who will be the exchange up. Chiriact does not breed twee sorcerers, unfeeling children, wild perverts, or lumpish brutes!”

There were an awful lot of dragons around for us to attack Roroku in any serious way. (In case it’s not obvious, her family is pretty important. Mine is not.)

So we bickered at her a bit and let her go. No choice there.

Arilash

Arilash stomped up behind Roroku, hissing like a thousand kettles, and prodded her in the flank with a clawtip. “You decide to take a wisdom path, Roroku! Competing with me is a fool’s deed.”

Roroku smiled a wicked smile, and said, “As you like, Arilash.” Which everyone who heard it understood as, “You’re wholly wrong, but you’re not worth arguing with.”

“I like the situation. I do not so much like the means by which you announce it. But I do not expect any very good manners from you, Roroku.”

“My manners are not to be questioned. Yours are another story, Arilash. Is it polite, the things you do? Is it ritually appropriate? For, know this: you have defiled yourself with so many drakes that there can be neither honor nor good fortune in a mating flight with you.”

“Hah — you attempt libel! If you had not abandoned all your honor just now, I would take offense!”

“Libel, you call it? The truth is not libel, Arilash.”

“Truth, you call it? You leave out so many of the people I have defiled myself with, and you dare to call it truth? And about the mating flight. That is superstition. You cannot theocept any truth to it, can you?” Arilash doesn’t have a good reputation really, as Roroku is hinting, but Arilash is quite well educated at least.

“It doesn’t need a god to bring bad fortune to a mating flight,” snapped Roroku.

“So, what is the governor of this cosmic principle which brings bad fortune to mating flights where someone starts a bit early and does a bit of investigative research? A god could do it, but there is no god involved. A spell could do it, a very intelligent spell with extensive divination and many forms of effectuator. A most mighty and puissant spell. A spell that is cosmic in scope and terrible to behold. A spell that we could probably magiocept from three universes over,” said Arilash. “A spell which is notably — even remarkably — nowhere to be noticed.”

“It doesn’t need magic, Arilash. It’s a matter of honor.”

“It is ever so fortunate that we have you with us to educate us on the topic of honor, Roroku. You break your engagement-oaths so honorably,” said Arilash in a voice as sweet as honeyed blood.

And that earned Arilash a gust of firebreath, right in the face. Arilash was only wearing the Small Wall. Roroku is good with fire; it must have stung. Arilash laughed while she was healing her eyes. “And your manners at a party are impeccable too. Offend the guest of honor, then scorch the guests. For an encore, perhaps you will try to steal Rankotherium’s enchanted bracelet.”

“I shall do no such thing,” said Roroku, stiffly. “But I shall be glad to have seen the last of you, and the boys as well.” She left me out. Probably she barely remembered me.

“I shall be glad to hasten that wondersome day!” said Arilash. “Shall I cast the Triangular Cyclonette for you, as a sign of my esteem? Or at least my pleasure at our final parting?”

“I have a correspondent on Chiriact who shall do the honors. Not that I think there is the slightest chance that you would miscast it and spill me and your soon-to-be-rival Csirnis into the void,” said Roroku.

“And when, precisely, will this delightful day occur? I would not miss the chance to confirm that you have, indeed, fled to Chiriact. Not that I doubt your words one bit, O most honor-teaching and custom-upholding oathbreaker,” said Arilash.

“Tomorrow. The third hour, at Ztesofaum’s Pyramid,” said Roroku.

“My wingtips quiver with pleasure at the very thought!” said Arilash.

“Better than what usually makes them quiver with pleasure,” said Roroku. She leapt into the air before Arilash could reply.

Arilash grinned at me and Nrararn, and Osoth who had joined us. “She does like to get the last word in, doesn’t she? I wonder what flaw this Csirnis might have, that Chiriact wanted to be rid of her, or she of them?”

The drakes didn’t want to speculate. If one of them was lucky, he would be marrying her. It really doesn’t matter what flaws a dragoness has (e.g., mine): she will find a mate. And a mate who considers himself luckier than half the drakes anywhere, at that.

I didn’t want to speculate either. I’d have been happier alone in the Indigo Desert, getting flayed by the sand, not feeling anything and not feeling anything.

Coda: Which Sex Is Better To Be

This seems like a good time to be officially Very Glad To Be A Dragoness. I don’t get much of a choice about it though. I suppose I could shapeshift to male and pretend for a while. As long as I never met another dragon, since they could tell instantly. Or anyone else with the least bit of magioception.

Advantages Disadvantages
I am guaranteed getting married, since there are two drakes for every dragoness.

I’m not really very eager to get married. Arilash, well, Roroku was right about Arilash, so I guess she does want to have a drake she can mate with whenever she wants and nobody will complain. I haven’t really been looking longingly on drakes very much. And I’ve tried, too.

This is rather more than a matter of gratifying intimate personal urges, or even producing progeny. Mated pairs of dragons control territory. Bachelors do not. They live on the territory of mated pairs, one way or another.

I get a nicer coming-of-age inspection. Every year or so a big slimy vile thing shoves its way out of my cloaca. Or, after I’m married, it’ll probably be fertilized sometimes too, and I’ll have to destroy the ones I don’t want to hatch.
Dragonesses enjoy copulating more, according to Arilash. I can’t imagine how she found this out. If it’s true at all. I can’t feel, so I’m not going to enjoy it much.
Drakes need to compete all the times, before they’re married or definitely not getting married. Lots of fighting, lots of verbal sparring, lots of treasure hunting, all that sort of thing. Which some of them enjoy (Greshthanu) and some of them don’t (Osoth). Dragonesses compete too. The customs are a bit different. We fight and spar verbally as much. We don’t collect much treasure, that would be offensive to the drakes — the drake gets status from presenting his mate a good hoard. Amatory prowess is another realm of competition … for drakes too, but more for dragonesses. Arilash is going to beat me in that. She’s been practicising, if the rumors are true. Which is very undignified and inappropriate of course!
I am not much obliged to study anything in particular beyond the basics of breath, sorcery, combat, rulership of households and domains. A dragoness can get away with more laziness than a drake. I know a handful who have taken advantage of this option. (I’ve actually had more of the opposite problem: I’ve wanted to study sorcery, but nobody will teach me anything but the simplest, because it will stunt my growth more than it already is.) Drakes who think it likely that they will lose generally need to study some craft or profession which will give them some status among dragons, afterwards. Osoth studies necromancy and Nrararn studies sky-magic, both quite respectable and useful specialities. Tultamaan studies the king, and is one of his advisors and retainers. Ythac should probably be paying more attention, though he is pretty good with information magic. Of those four, only Ythac has much of a real chance at getting married.
I am automatically considered attractive and appealing no matter what I look like or what parts of me got broken. This ought to be important. I am probably going to be the technically worst lover in all of the dragon-worlds. I’m going to keep asking “is it in yet?”, because I can’t tell. If not using an outright scrying spell — can you think of anything more offensive than that? But ultimately that doesn’t matter. I’m a dragoness, which means I am more desireable than the lack-of-mates that half the drakes have.

I am not actually very attractive. I’m a dull black color without much texture. Arilash is a dull tan color without much texture. Roroku is a dull green color without much texture. And so on. Compare that to the drakes: Nrararn with his twirly horn and incandescent mane and pretty cerulean color, Greshthanu with his garden of blue and orange spikes, etc. etc. etc.

This is really just the same as songbirds. Females are dull colors to avoid attracting attention. Males are bright colors to attract attention: attention of females, attention of predators, whatever.

But I’m not a stupid little songbird. I’d like to look exciting and dramatic. Again, I could shapeshift or use cosmetic spells the way drakes do, but everydragon can tell that they’re there and pretty much can tell what I really look like too so it doesn’t help

I have a better-than-drake chance of surviving my Great Separation. (Mating flights must be nasty on Dragonhome for the original, un-Separated dragons. Two drakes for every dragoness is bad enough, but they’ve got three or four.) I did survive my Great Separation, so this one doesn’t seem very important any more. Sure, I should be thankful and happy for it. But the only difference it makes to my day-to-day life is that I have a day-to-day life. That’s surprisingly hard to remember.
I’m going to get married.

… I’m going to get married.

I’m not even being flippant or clever here. Suppose that I have my choice of four drakes (really two or three) and I don’t want to marry any of them, or anyone at all? Suppose I want to go be an explorer, a discoverer of new worlds? A researcher into the depths of sorcery (bad for size, bad for fertility)? Anything other than the co-ruler of a tiny-to-small domain? That’s not a choice for me. I’m going to get married, because there are so many more drakes than dragonesses that every dragoness has to get married.

I hope there’s actually some fun in it. I’m not going to enjoy sex, that’s clear enough. My parents seem basically happy with each other, but they say that’s some work to achieve and due in a large part to a regular schedule of sex plus lots of unscheduled. Rankotherium and Dessvaria seem to basically hate each other.

I hereby resolve to meet my fate with all the honor and bravery of a dragon. And if I don’t have all the sensuality of a dragon, I’ll fake it as best I can.

(I hope you believe that resolution for me, ’cause I don’t.)

((I also hate writing codas. They make me think too much.))

Csirnis’ (Day 5)

Ztesofaum’s Pyramid is a great big tetrahedron of reinforced concrete and archaic plastics, nearly half a mile high. The mhelvul made it for their god Ztesofaum and his army of priests, subordinate gods, functionaries, crusaders, and assassins. I don’t really understand why. Ztesofaum had conquered most of the continent when the thing was started. (Osoth’s new pet god-in-a-bottle was one of his subordinates, I think. He might know why it was built.) And when my parents and their cohort showed up, neither pyramid nor priests nor subordinate gods nor functionaries nor crusaders nor assassins nor Ztesofaum’s own powers helped him very much. He died under Rankotherium’s breath. And Rankotherium wasn’t nearly so redoubtable back then I don’t think.

Anyways, the pyramid is a pretty impressive structure. It’s pretty small if you think of it as a mountain, but it’s awfully big if you think of it as a building. And all the ancient, broken guns and beam-projectors sticking out of the sides look kind of imposing too: like you want to wear the Hoplonton if you’re flying close to it. It’s made of some very stern black concrete. We had the mhelvul paint it pastel yellow and green after we conquered them. There’s nothing like a big pyramid that used to be the invincible fortress of one of your mightiest gods being painted pastel yellow and green to remind you just how weak you are compared to your new overlords. And the big hole that Rankotherium burned through it can’t hurt that impression either.

We like to describe it to off-world visitors, so that they can show up there and be impressed too. Not that it’s their ancestors’ fortress. Most off-world visitors are dragons anyways. But it looks like the site of a huge impressive battle. Actually it was a small impressive battle. The real sites of the huge impressive battles are places like the plains of Owixie where Ztesofaum died, flat and covered with farms now, or the Indigo Desert where the survivors of Owixie fled. Rankotherium’s hole in the pyramid mostly let him get at some subordinate crusaders and assistant functionaries and adjutant priests and auxiliary assassins. All the top-grade ones had died at Owixie.

So, at the third hour, Roroku made her final farewells to her friends and family (warm and heartfelt), and to her former mating flight (perfunctory).

Someone in Chiriact cast the Triangular Cyclonette. I have never seen the spell before. It’s worth remembering. It looks like a fierce wind made of fire, niobium, and poetry, blowing both ways through a gate made of ice, centuries, and death. Roroku dived into the wind and flew through the triangle, and I suppose she ended up on Chiriact. Her parents took that opportunity to fly off for home, with some good travel spells. Which didn’t look particularly suspicious at the time.

Then another dragon, Csirnis, flew out. I was pretty impressed with Csirnis, from the first glance. We all were.

Csirnis’s scales look like crisp leaf-shapes of gold. Mine do too, sometimes, but that’s because I’m pretty good at shapeshifting. Csirnis wasn’t wearing any shapeshifting spells. Eyes like huge emeralds, antlers with four perfect and symmetrical forks each, six perfect barbels, a long crest from head to mid-back with just the right touch of iridescence. Tail with an elegant diamond-shaped stinger. Six curved claws, and matching elbow-spikes, as white as ivory. Forewings shining like gold, hindwings shining like emeralds, matching scales and eyes just right. Big, too — twenty-five feet from shoulder to tailbase. As big as Greshthanu, who was distinctly the biggest dragon in the mating flight before. And not a bit of shapeshifting involved.

No spells to block veriception either. A lot of defensive spells, to be sure, as for a dragon who expected to be flying into a sudden battle. But we could all see that everything Csirnis said today was true, with neither lies nor evasions.

Also, despite the promise and the name, Csirnis was very obviously, beautifully male.

(If you’re a dragon and reading this, you know how I know. If you’re not, you should learn to tell because sometime you might annoy one of us by saying the wrong thing. Both sexes of dragon can be touchy about it.)

“Dragons of Mhelvul! The dragons of Chiriact have cheated you!” he boomed, by way of introduction. “They promised a dragoness, but sent a drake instead!”

And that’s a big cheat! It means that one more of their drakes gets to marry, and one fewer of ours does. Or, two fewer if Arilash or I marry him, and by the end of the day he sounded like he’d be pretty tempting and sure to come in first. And the one or two drakes who don’t get to marry are one or two from our mating flight.

Osoth laughed a low, bitter laugh. “Our proud fiancée was in such a hurry to leave that she paid little attention to the bargain she was making.”

“A dead drake, but still flying! I do not approve of this unfairness!” shouted Greshthanu. He had been upset all morning. We all thought that he was Roroku’s favorite. Maybe he was, but she still didn’t actually want him. Now he was going to be stuck with Arilash, or me, or nobody.

“The concept is not wholly unappealing, nor wholly unobtainable,” said Osoth. “Though this one is particularly alive. I speak as an expert on the topic.”

“After I kill him, will you animate him?” asked Greshthanu.

“Back to Chiriact we will send him! Our opinions on drakes and dragonesses, this will show!” added Llredh.

“The one who kills him is not going to marry me!” shouted Arilash.

“Nor me!” I added. “Which pretty much means a wasted mating flight!”

“Kill me if you will,” shouted Csirnis, very high up and circling a deliquescing but still probably usable the Triangular Cyclonette. “But know this: Though you were sent a drake, you were not sent the least among drakes of Chiriact!”

“Oh? Who are you, then, Csirnis of Chiriact?” I yelled at him.

“I am Csirnis Tokà-Dnesś Varagirion.”

Right. Not the least among drakes of Chiriact. He probably is in line to inherit a continent, if not the whole world. He probably has a hoard bigger than our whole castle. I really, really wished I had much of a chance to come in first in the mating flight.

“Right,” said Arilash, a half-step ahead of me. “Where’s your hoard? Got anything more than you can carry under your scales?”

“I have not so much as a single shard of topaz, real or false. I abdicated hoard and title both.” said Csirnis.

“And why would you do a thing like that?” asked Llredh, hoping to diminish Csirnis in the eyes of his fiancées.

“In protest at my parents’ cheating. And various prior crimes to which I will be no party.” he said. Which certainly diminishes him in my eyes now. Not because he’s poor, but because he’s so proud. A drake who abandons that much, that easily, might well abandon wife and territory and children for no better reason.

“Not so that we won’t kill you the first night out?” asked Greshthanu. “If you’re coming on the mating flight at all — Arilash and Jyothky haven’t accepted you.” Arilash and I showed no signs of wanting to. The king, perched on the pyramid next to Tultamaan, looked a bit irritated, but didn’t choose to exercise his legal authority to dissolve the mating flight (kings never do that, not twice in a gross-year) or to ban Csirnis from it (which would have been humiliating for the king since he had already approved the exchange of Csirnis for Roroku). Probably he wasn’t interested in picking a fight with the royal family of Chiriact, probably because he’d lose any paws he slashed them with and then some.

“You may try to kill me now, or later, as you wish. But I am as deadly in battle as any dragon of our age, and more than most,” he said. It didn’t even sound very arrogant when he said it: just the pure elemental confidence of which arrogance is a cloying and obnoxious imitation.

There was, by this time, a bit of a stir among the older dragons. Most of them started off furious at Chiriact for cheating us. The more they heard from Csirnis, the less furious they could be. His decision not to wear veriception blocks was a very clever bit of tactics. When he explained that he was, in part, offering himself as a hostage to prevent a war between Mhelvul and Chiriact, everyone knew that he meant it.

I don’t remember the arguments very well. My parents and Arilash’s were more amused than anything; one of us would have a chance at a really splendid and pedigreed, if poor and irrational, husband. My fiancés’ parents were the most unhappy, for the same reason. They were the only ones who actually suggested attacking Chiriact. Nobody else really wanted to do that, since there are a lot more dragons on Chiriact than on Mhelvul, and we’d pay dearly for any revenge. Roroku’s parents had already left. Roroku’s friends were between those poles.

Arilash and I invited Csirnis down to chat more sociably. Ythac joined us. The other fiancés sat and glared at us, or joined the elders’ argument.

“So. Would you marry me, if I picked you?” Arilash asked Csirnis.

Csirnis’ eyes were like clear emeralds. “Yes, or Jyothky, if she does. I am landless, hoardless, subjectless. A drake like me can hardly be choosy.”

“Well, you are a pauper today,” said Ythac. “What will happen when you return to Chiriact and demand your old perquisites back?”

“I would get soundly trounced by some of the best warriors on Chiriact, I should think. And executed in some public and painful way, if I didn’t arrange to die fighting,” said Csirnis calmly.

“So you have no territory for a new bride, nor the hope of any!” roared Greshthanu. “Unlike myself!”

“True indeed. I would have made a better husband an hour ago than I am currently,” he said. “I did not come here for personal advantage.”

“You left on bad terms with your parents … are they the king and queen of Chiriact?” I asked.

He smiled at me, which was awfully impressive and presumably made my cloaca go fluttery, not that I could tell. “Yes, they are king and queen. I was expecting to leave on bad terms; they are not given to forgiving public insults so easily. But they goaded me, and in some fury I revealed two crimes which they had hoped would never be traced to them. I doubt that they will forgive me this grand-year.” (Twelve times twelve times twelve years, which is a long time, even for us.)

Ythac smiled his sticky-sweet smile, and said, “I’m sure it’s hard to stay angry at you, Csirnis.”

“I am pleased to hear that, Ythac, though I am not wholly sure my parents concur. They have had more than a little practice. Still, I feared that any other drake who came here would be torn apart. I was not sure that I would not be!”

“But you came anyways,” said Arilash.

“My parents were going to send Merigon, who is half-crippled and half-daft; he would have no chance. I demanded to be allowed to come in his place. They refused. With a certain amount of violence, distraction, and blackmail, I arranged that they allow me. Indeed, eager for some reason to keep me far from Chiriact.”

“That’s a brave and romantic story, and all true too!” Arilash’s eyes were glowing, and Ythac’s. I’m sure mine were too.

Coda: Chiaract

I don’t know all that much about Chiaract. Somehow it seemed rude to interrogate Csirnis about his home. Actually about the home he just exiled himself from. So here’s what I know.

After my great-four-or-five-times grandparents discovered how to give their children the Great Separation, my great-three-or-four-times grandparents left Sśròu. I think a few of their parents came with them. There was a bit of discord with the dragons who didn’t get astral magic. One of us (the dragons who had the operation, viz. my ancestors, viz. us) had inherited a lifetime post, and when the unimproved dragons realized that he’d have it for many, many of their generations, they got rather upset and drove us all off.

(How could they, you might ask? Sorcery stunts your growth. They were bigger than us, maybe a lot bigger, and certainly far more numerous as well. Modern magic might be enough to compensate in a one-on-one fight against a far bigger dragon, or it might not. And I don’t think my ancestors had very many good spells. And even modern magic isn’t that much of an advantage against a dragon. I usually lose fights to Arilash or Chevethna or Roroku, even though I have much better defensive spells.)

Anyways, my ancestors went to Graulfnir, which had the honor of becoming the first proper dragonworld. (Sśròu isn’t proper.) Their children mostly stayed on Graulfnir, though I think they colonized a few other worlds too. Their children, my great-or-great-great grandparents, didn’t have a lot of space on Graulfnir to live, so they colonized a lot of worlds, and Chiaract is one of those. So it’s been a dragonworld for a long time.

Chiriact is a Typical Toroid. That means it’s an inside-out world compared to, say, Mhel. And donut-shaped instead of round. It’s got three kind of people I think. We named it after the chir — I think they’re small and kind of buggish, but maybe they’re the long-haired six-legged ones. I can’t remember. The third kind is the gomgomfalloy, who are centipedes larger than a dragonet.

And it’s got politics. The original king and queen were my great-or-great-great grandparents’ generation, of course, since they colonized the place. But there was some sort of big dragon-war, the kind where we fight each other thoroughly. I think the original queen got killed by treachery, and the original king got crippled beyond healing magic and exiled, and then got mysteriously assassinated. And Csirnis’s parents took over after that.

Two wicked deeds in that story. Two blackmails that Csirnis revealed. I’ll bet they go together.

Anyways, back to Chiaract. The king and queen live in the Topaz Palace, that’s pretty famous. It started off as an immense mountain of impure mottled quartz and amethyst. Lots of small people mined for a long time to tidy it up and carve it into a palace. Then three dragons very carefully breath-roasted it until it was, by all reports, a quite uniform and beautiful citrine. It’s not topaz of course, just yellow quartz, but it’s supposed to be impressive and beautiful and imposing. (Hence the “fake topaz” that he doesn’t have any of now.)

And probably matches Csirnis’s scales perfectly.

Greshthanu’s Feast (Day 6)

Inevitably, we took a tour of Plaga Point. “Inevitably” because it’s Arilash’s favorite mountain range on all of Mhel, and she’s sort of in charge. I didn’t have any better ideas; nobody else wanted to go to the Indigo Desert. “We” means Arilash, Csirnis, Greshthanu, Osoth, and me. Ythac and Rankotherium were going to come, but they got into a huge fight over he-wouldn’t-tell-me-what and they went to visit Dessvaria instead.

Of course the drakes got into a bicker or two, as soon as we were in the air on the way. That’s good manners even if they’re not technically on the mating flight yet.

Greshthanu shouted at Csirnis, “And what good is a prince and heir, when he is a dragon? Are your parents so weak that they fear death?”

Csirnis flicked his left barbels. “Oh, not much use at all, truth to tell. I imagine I live a more worthwhile life now that I have abdicated.”

“Hah! You know nothing, prancing prince!” roared Greshthanu. “I may not be royalty, but I have done mighty deeds already, while you were playing with your dancing-masters and poetry-masters in the court of Chiaract!”

“My poetry-masters were never fully satisfied with my performance. An odd thing, for a royal dragon to be chided by distinctly non-royal chirs. But my parents were never fully satisfied with my performance either. Especially yesterday,” said Csirnis.

“Just what I would expect, from a prancy poncy prince! Why, only recently, I settled a war among my parents’ small people!” laughed Greshthanu.

“That is surely a valuable thing!” said Csirnis. “I have done a few minor things here and there, but never that.”

“I hadn’t heard all about it either,” I said. That’s just barely true enough not to make me vericept unpleasantly to myself: I had heard a lot about it, just not all about it. Everyone knows something about it. I am not precisely one of Greshthanu’s intimates, not since I refused to be intimate with him a few years ago, so I hadn’t got details. (I officially cannot complain about being intimate with him starting in a few days, and before Csirnis showed up Greshthanu was pretty much my most attractive fiancé, but I didn’t want to start early. Like, not before my first egg.) “Will you tell us now?” That’s the traditional invitation for a drake to boast — not that they mostly need to be invited very much — and it’s a polite thing to do and a good way to keep conversation going.

“Surely I will tell!” roared Greshthanu. Yes, surely he would. “In my parents’ territory is Cartharn, a small kingdom rich in rice and mustard, whence comes the strongest fish sauce in all of Mhel. Next to Cartharn is Kbrench, slightly larger, wherein is grown rice and cotton and a fish sauce flavored with mushrooms. The two are old enemies from before we came to rule them. My parents fixed the border between them as the shallow Rumzu River, all set about with bullrushes, and ruled them fairly and well. From afar.”

“Ruling from afar is certainly the best-loved form of rulership. If you have the misfortunate circumscription of the intellectual facilities to restrict yourself to living subjects, that is,” enunciated Osoth. (Most dragons talk. Osoth enunciates.)

Greshthanu hissed at Osoth, and swatted at him with a hindclaw. “Lout of a necromancer! You know less than the prince about governance!”

“I make no pretense of rulership! Unlike one or two dragons, who pretend to it with great determination,” said Osoth, dodging badly. He healed the long shallow score on his flank.

“Well! When the floods came very heavily, the Rumzu River leapt away from its traditional banks, and Cartharn and Kbrench were all aswim and adrown for a while. And when the water receded, the river found a new course for over eight miles: a course that snipped half a mile’s territory off of Cartharn and gave it to Kbrench. Or, if one were to listen to Cartharn’s description of the situation, the river simply moved half a mile over, so that it now flowed entirely through Cartharn territory for eight miles,” said Greshthanu.

“A shame to rely so heavily on autonomously mobile landmarks,” said Csirnis. “Though rivers do make wonderful boundary markers for the most part.”

Greshthanu glared at him angrily. I don’t think Greshthanu could find any actual insult in Csirnis’ words — I certainly couldn’t — but we’re both sure they were mocking somehow. Greshthanu snorted a thick frore fog. “A shame my parents didn’t have your advice when they set up the boundary. They could have chosen both to have it there and not to have it there.”

“Your parents are mighty indeed, if the laws of logic fall before their breath and fangs!” said Csirnis, and flipped his tail-sting. “I am tolerably skilled at fighting, but I know not how to challenge such a foe as that.”

Greshthanu glared at him a bit more. “Well. Mighty they were, mighty they are! But distracted they were, too.”

“Right, distracted. I remember. Your father was having an affair with Dessvaria, wasn’t he?” said Arilash.

I hadn’t heard about that. I certainly didn’t see Dessvaria around very much when I stayed with Rankotherium and Ythac, and less afterwards. Certainly Rankotherium and Dessvaria aren’t on the best of terms. I’ve never heard that she behaved improperly. Dragons don’t do that sort of thing.

“So naturally they sent me, their son and trusty vicar, to settle the border!” roared Greshthanu. Which rhymes and scans pretty well in Grand Draconic. Classy of him. “So I descended into the disputed region, where angry farmers faced angry farmers with bill-hooks and spears, and I commanded them to peace!”

“I imagine that a few gross of poorly-armed mhelvul warriors could feel themselves overmatched by a dragon,” said Osoth. “Even an unimpressive one. I trust they belayed their bulbinating battle and bowed before you?”

Greshthanu glared at Osoth. “They stopped! They did me obeisance, in the bloody mud of the battlefield! But I know these mhelvul. They are wicked and evasive; they are sneaky and subtle. They might not fight that day, while I was present, but later? After I left, they would surely fight again, unless I took measures to bring about some unity! Some commonality of purpose, some agreement, some cooperation!

“And I found a clever plan for that. I commanded them to lay down their arms and build me a palace, working side by side, in the center of the disputed territory!”

Csirnis curled his tailtip again. “Well, that’s a novel approach, to be sure, especially in a region recently troubled by floods and wars. How did it work?”

Greshthanu crashed his forewings together. “Brilliantly! Oh, there were a few troubles here and there. It started out badly, in fact, with bickering and fistfights! I had to hire a chief architect from Pdernuz, so that the project would not be run by someone from one side or the other. But after a few months the foundations were begun, and the two countries cooperated.”

Csirnis looked a bit alarmed. “Months? How long are months on Mhel?”

“Two days longer than standard months. Why, how long are months on pretty little Chiaract?”

“We have no moon, being in a Typical Toroid. We use standard months,” said Csirnis. “Months it is, then. I must admire your patience, to put up with discord for so long a time.”

“Ah, a bit of hunting, a few trips to Fohhona,” said Greshthanu. He and Arilash smirked at each other. Maybe no rumors about Dessvaria, but I had heard that Arilash wasn’t quite as chaste as she should have been. (Oh, I wrote that earlier: Roroko said as much, and Arilash too. I don’t know that they were telling the truth, but maybe.) I refused Greshthanu when he asked me, but maybe Arilash didn’t. (I wonder if my fiancés care more about chaste behavior, or prowess at lovemaking … actually I’m pretty sure that Greshthanu and Llredh don’t care much about chastity at all. I have some hope that Csirnis does.) “After a year or so, the palace was done.”

“What was it like?” I asked.

“Oh, very tidy, very cozy. A big cave of a room to sleep in, a bigger cave of a room for waking, some small people rooms for small people. We didn’t bother with a lavatory; the Rumzu is fine for such things. It was painted glorious marigold and aquamarine, with expensive paints imported from Gzathato.”

“Paid for from your own hoard? Or your parents’? Or what?” asked Arilash. I was wondering the same thing. He should be fattening his hoard for the mating flight.

“Well, no, of course not any dragon’s hoard. This was a service to my mhelvul. It’s only right and fair that they should pay for it,” said Greshthanu.

“And surely the mhelvul paid gladly, eager to provide for their own correction?” asked Osoth, smirking.

“They never complained!”, roared Greshthanu.

“Well, I don’t know nearly enough about the conquest of Mhel,” said Csirnis daintily. “But shortly after the conquest of Chiriact, my mother demanded a grand of pounds of gold from each city-state in a certain region. One city-state protested, saying that it was poor and half the size of the others, which was true. Mother, who was a bit of a Downcrusher, proclaimed that they should pay double.”

Ûj,” said Osoth in Grand Draconic. Which means of course, “Any doom is proper for small people.” A simple, common word for a simple, common concept.

“I am not a Downcrusher!” snarled Greshthanu. “I did nothing of the sort! Ûj is a wicked philosophical principle! There is no fairness to ûj!”

“Oh, I’m sure Osoth was referring to my parents, who are, indeed, quite well-known Downcrushers,” said Csirnis. “No unnecessary inferences or comparisons need to be made to your own, far more generous, activities.” Osoth and Arilash and I struggled mightily, and mostly avoided smirking. Mostly.

“Well! That’s fine! After the palace was complete and the Cartharnese and Kbrenchese had proved that they could dwell side by side in peace, I promised that the worthiest of the two countries would get control of the disputed lands. For each of them had a reasonable claim to them, and no fair division could be made from first principles,” said Greshthanu.

“And how did you measure worthiness?” asked Osoth. “We are provided with twenty splendid senses, of which I esteem dangersense not the least. But I, at least, have no innate way to measure such a hazy thing as worthiness.” I considered biting him, but he was on the other side of the flight, and that didn’t deserve a breath.

“In the most natural way possible!” exclaimed Greshthanu. “With a triumph of applied philosophy. I had each kingdom in turn produce a great feast and symposium, at which they displayed for me the greatest triumphs of their culture, sophistication, and cuisine. The one that measured the highest, of course, would get the land. Perfectly decisive! Perfectly fair!”

“And you get two top-notch feasts,” I noted.

“Well, of course. And no, that’s not ûj, it’s simply an exercise in the displaying of superior culture. And Cartharn certainly took it that way! Oh, what a feast that was. Flounder stuffed with snails and peppers, glorious curries of plaintains and squashes, and a whole roast ox crusted in cinnamon and cumin and asafoedita half an inch thick.” (A dragon after my own heart, in that respect. One fiancé point for Greshthanu! A pity he lost so many other ones.)

“That sounds like a respectably tasty bribe for a nice slice of territory,” said Osoth.

“It wasn’t a bribe,” snarled Greshthanu. “It was a display of culture.”

“A display of cuisine, at least,” said Csirnis calmly.

“That it was, that it certainly was! I made sure that Kbrench’s feast was a week later,” said Greshthanu. “But … what do you suppose they came up with?”

“A little bowl of pickles and mushrooms and rice, to show how poor they would be without that slice of land?” I guessed.

“Hah, no, worse! They served a similar feast — the two countries mostly have the same cuisine, after all — but even the oh-so-clever prince will never guess what the ox was encrusted with,” said Greshthanu. He arched his head up and half-struck at Csirnis, as a challenge.

“I would not offer offense to your storytelling or to the local spices, which are largely mysteries to me, by guessing,” said Csirnis. (Backing out of a challenge like that? Very weak of him! But guessing wrong wouldn’t have counted for much either, I suppose. Tiny point to Greshthanu.)

“Cinnamon and cumin and asafoedita and such … yes … but also with the dung of the hybarcas!”

“Extraordinary,” murmured Csirnis. “What’s a hybarcas?” Arilash and I explained that it’s a big wolverine sort of thing, whose droppings are probably quite foul and certainly never eaten intentionally. “Whyever did they do that?”

“Bah, you get ahead of the story!” said Greshthanu. “It matters not why they did it, not yet. I put my paw upon the neck of the king of Kbrench, and commanded him to eat of it! Which he did with reluctance and trembling. So straightaway I had my answer: Cartharn had a noble nature, but Kbrench had the vilest nature among all mhelvul! Right, right? Do you not agree?”

“Well, I would like to know a bit more first,” said Csirnis.

“Bah, you demur, you disagree, you cavil and quibble and argue with vast bubbles of windy words, Csirnis! What sort of a foulness-lover are you? On Chiriact I imagine that you dine daily on pheasants festooned with ferret feces, but on Mhel we do no such thing!”

Csirnis fluttered his wings in a rather girlish giggle. “Well, I suppose I can do without them for a dozen years on this mating flight. Perhaps even longer than that… Yes — for the company of Arilash and Jyothky, I shall give ferret feces up forever!”

“He said ‘no’,” said Osoth, in Grand Draconic. (That will take some explaining. The phrase “He said ‘yes'” sounds pretty much like another phrase that can be translated as “Overly complicated” or “too effete” — the hisses are toned differently, but it rhymes and scans and has most of the same letters in most of the same order. So “He said ‘yes'” is a sort of put-down for someone whose courtly speech has gotten the better of them. Lately “He said ‘no'” has gotten to be that too.)

“So, Kbrench insulted you, so you awarded the land to Cartharn?” I asked.

“Exactly! That is exactly how it went,” said Greshthanu. “But the story does not end there. I was clever, very clever.”

“What else did you extort out of them?” asked Osoth. “A grand-weight of gold, as a payment that you do not destroy them from the insult?”

“Nothing so unfair, nothing so unfair! I am an Uplifter, you must surely know it! I did, indeed, discover why Kbrench had given me such an insult,” said Greshthanu.

“We were wondering that, yes. Even I was, and I’d heard somewhat about the judgment,” said Arilash.

“Cartharn has a most devious chef — Pdunk is his name. Pdunk made a great show of preparing his roast ox by a secret recipe known only to Rankotherium’s personal chef, whom he, Pdunk, seduced and cozened out of it some years before. That recipe, assembled and cooked in the main kitchen with great pomp and many people watching, was the blend of spices and feces. He explained it in detail, how we enjoy slightly putrid food by mhelvul standards, and how the musky pungency of the manure is a spice to our tongues,” said Greshthanu, flicking his ears in disgust. “Yet in the bread-kitchen next door, they prepared a similar ox without any foulness in the crust. By means of a secret door they had built between the ovens, Pdunk and two assistants exchanged the oxen as they were roasting. The untainted ox was served to me; the tainted one was cast into the Rumzu. Then the Cartharn feast was a success.

“And, secretly, Cartharn’s spies told Kbrench the whole recipe of the foul-crusted ox. And Kbrench’s chefs resolved to match Cartharn’s deed, and prepare the same recipe, and they served it to me. And thus they lost the contest!”

“Well, I don’t know which is the most cultured,” said Csirnis. “But Pdunk of Cartharn is certainly clever.”

“Hah! I, too, am clever! In the Rumzu, the fouled ox floated, and fetched up against a fallen tree, and there it stuck. And then the farmers of Kbrench came upon it, and saw it, and knew that they had been tricked. They sent their children as spies to the private celebrations of Cartharn, and learned more of the story. And then they came to me, and told me of their humiliation.”

“Oh? What did you do?”

“Well! I interrogated them with veriception, I can tell you, and Pdunk as well! I had already proclaimed Cartharn the more cultured one, and it would be a shameful thing to change my mind. So I called for a ceremony of formally proclaiming the debatable lands to be Cartharn’s. And at that ceremony, I gave Pdunk the devious chef his choice: either to lose a leg, or to lose the debatable lands,” said Greshthanu. He smirked. “Pdunk squirmed himself heartily, before he agreed to lose his leg! I almost made him roast it and serve it to me, but that seemed a bit much.”

“A suitable reward and suitable mercy, perhaps, for the crime of not serving you a shit-ox,” said Osoth.

“Obtuse Osoth! He arranged to serve it to me!”

Osoth scratched his head with his tailtip. “In that case, why did you not give the land to Kbrench?”

“You are being deliberately dumb now! I had already pledged it to Cartharn!” roared Greshthanu.

“I suppose I see.”

Greshthanu sneered at Csirnis. “So these are the sorts of political subtleties and entanglements that a real drake must face, on a real and still untamed frontier world!”

“Well, I have never faced a banquet dish quite like that,” said Csirnis.

“Bah! Not the cooking, but the treachery! Bravery and cleverness, power and sorcery — these are our great tools! Not your dainty little court concerns!”

“Where did the ‘bravery’ part come in, Jyothky? Or the ‘cleverness’ part?” asked Osoth to me, in a whisper just loud enough for everyone to hear. “I think the ‘power’ was from intimidating a bunch of poorly-armed mhelvul. The ‘sorcery’ part is also obscure.”

“I figured out the plans!” roared Greshthanu.

“Well, yes. Too late to do anything about it, and after the mhelvul had told you about most of them,” said Osoth.

“You, too, do not understand! For this insult I challenge you to the Caramelle!” roared Greshthanu. Which he won, of course, five touches to two. Osoth isn’t really a very good fighter.

Csirnis should have challenged Greshthanu then, but he didn’t. Which confuses me. Maybe Csirnis is actually the coward that Greshthanu is trying to paint him as? But no, coming here alone isn’t a coward’s deed.

Then we got to the waterfalls at Plaga Point. They’re impressive enough, I’ll give Arilash that. One of them is a tall sort of vertical waterfall, as a small but intense mountain stream pours down a gap. The other one is a ring-river which flows around the mountain. When it gets to the same gap, it waterfalls too, but left to right.

No, that’s not how rivers go normally on Mhel. The paingods did a few worthwhile things, when they ruled this world. Naturally they stuck them in the wilderness two hours’ flight away from anywhere that mhelvul normally lived.

The dragons who like water spent a while circling around and through the crossing waterfalls. Osoth and Arilash even persuaded me to make a few passes. I continue not to like water.

Coda

Flying through a waterfall is just like flying through the air. Except that first your aeroception doesn’t work very well, since your flight path isn’t all air. Then when you get closer, your kineception doesn’t work very well, since there are grands upon grands of small quickly-moving drops of water all over. Then your vision doesn’t work very well, because water splashes into your face.

Then your veriception doesn’t work very well, because Csirnis and Arilash asked me whether I enjoyed it. And I’d lose fiancée points if I told the truth. So I made quite sure that my lying spells were working before I answered.

Where Are We Going? (Day 7)

“Where are we going?” asked Csirnis, as we flew across the Vorey Sea.

“Pdernuz. Ythac’s home. You’ve met Rankotherium and Dessvaria, big dragons who don’t seem to like each other very much? Their capitol, too,” I said.

“Please forgive me, Jyothky, but my mind was elsewhere. I was wondering where we were going for the mating flight. Roroku’s messages might have said, but I did not get to read them myself,” said the golden prince.

“It has been planned for many years to be at Chregony Point,” said Arilash.

“It’s not going to be there now!” said Greshthanu. “Don’t be a fool, Tultamaan! Do not keep your mind in your forepaws!”

“Pray forgive me for keeping my mind in my forepaws, or at least not having it in my head,” said Csirnis. “I did get the impression that there might be some change of plans necessary, but of what sort?”

“Roroku’s parents own Chregony Point,” I said.

“And a diplomatic solution to the current crisis of letting us have the mating flight there, and construing that as her parents’ apology…” Csirnis mused.

“… Is rather more apologetic than they seem to be at the moment, and rather more forgiving than anyone else wants to be,” said Arilash.

“If you were the girl your name implies, this would be much simpler,” said Greshthanu.

“The politics might be simpler,” said Arilash. “But we don’t have much to do with the politics, not exactly. We’d need to find another place to go, no matter how girly Csirnis is or is not.”

“It is pleasant to find a practical topic which does not depend on my gender!” said Csirnis. “And which I may be able to provide some assistance as more than a sacrificial victim, at that.” But he wouldn’t explain until we were all together.

Rankotherium had given us his private garden for our private discussions. By “private” he means “every dozen years or two he doesn’t let the mhelvul use it for a day or two and doesn’t apologize.” I’ve never seen the garden empty before, and I must have been here a gross of times. But today, Rankotherium’s mhelvul had worked for a day or more to arrange things for us, and then left, and put up barricades to keep all the other mhelvul of Pdernuz out.

Rankotherium is not a subtle dragon, not that he needs to be. He had arranged nine couches in a circle, with barrels of our favorite beverages by them: fish broth for Arilash, ginger and garlic and seagull soup for me, plain water for Ythac, and so on. In case that was too subtle, each couch had a circle of paper with the dragon’s name on it. Ythac was to my left. Tultamaan was to my right, in case I needed a readily-available drake to compare Rankotherium’s son against. Arilash was on Ythac’s left, and Osoth on her left. (Fortunately, there aren’t two Tultamaans in our group. One is quite enough. Osoth isn’t impressive husband material, but he’s perfectly good company. Arilash flirts with him sometimes, I’ve seen it.)

Csirnis was as far as possible from either dragoness. Behold the subtlety of Rankotherium!

Ythac, our host, crashed his forewings on my back and Arilash’s to call for quiet. “As Csirnis is reported to have asked, we must choose a new place for our mating flight. I recommend Fohhona.”

“Fohhona may, arguably, perhaps serve us poorly,” said Osoth. “It is a great metropolis of the mhelvul, to be sure. There are fine restaurants abounding upon the edges of splendid avenues. There are operas in elegantly-carved opera houses, and opera-boxes strewn with iron coins for the comfort of size-shifted dragonic spectators. One may lounge in parks which are both spacious and gracious. There will be a great deal to divert us from the business at hand.”

“And we’re supposed to go somewhere without any other dragons,” said Nrararn. “Bad enough that we traded a dragoness for a drake. We don’t need competition from all the drakes who live in Fohhona, too.”

“It is the drakes who visit that concern me the most!” said Osoth. “They are a dissolute and luxury-seeking lot, of poor moral character, given to the most vile of habits. Some, it is said, visit the brothels of Fohhona in mhelvul form. The others, I should worry about.” Which got a few tails twitching: Llredh and Ythac and Arilash.

“Ythac, the Boundary Conditions of our situation are more Dire than you account for,” said Tultamaan. “Our Continued Presence on Mhel would serve as a Sort of Irritant to the senior dragons. My uncle has explained in the Very Strongest of Terms that we must Depart from our dear home world and learn about each other in an Idyllic Setting far from the Potential Political Instability that might trouble this poor innocent sphere should we Stay.”

(Tultamaan speaks with capital letters a lot, in Grand Draconic. Actually he just uses the emphatic particle “xhéè” a lot — it’s a word that means “the next word is the most important one in the sentence, even if you might not expect it to be based on the grammar.” Most dragons don’t use “xhéè” very often. I’ve never met another dragon who ever used it xhéè twice in the same sentence — there, I just used it properly, but for the first time in my diary. When Tultamaan says it it comes out sounding just about like “xhê”, which you sometimes say if you’re talking formally — “xhê” means “Here comes a sentence which is just a plain statement and not a question or command or anything special”, and we usually don’t even say it. (But if you’re not a dragon you shouldn’t be learning Grand Draconic, so I won’t say anything more about it. Not that we’ll kill you for knowing a few words, especially those, but best not to learn too much. You can learn Petty Draconic instead. (And, if you do and if you care, Tultamaan pronounces and uses Petty Draconic’s “shéè” and “shê” just the same way he does Grand Draconic’s “xhéè” and “xhê”. [In translation, “xhéè” is rendered by putting the emphasized word in italics, as above, and “xhê” is simply not translated; Jyothky only uses it three times in the document. -bb])))

“Your absence, that is what the king craves! The politics, of this he is master. The idyllic setting, this is his court without you!” growled Llredh. (Llredh, in case you’re reading this in translation, never uses “xhéè” at all, and puts the word he wants to emphasize first in the sentence a lot. That also sounds funny but somehow not as pretentious as the way Tultamaan talks. (Though nobody can top Osoth for pretentious speech forms.))

“That’s not true!” hissed Tultamaan. “I am a Trusted and Favored Advisor to the King, despite my Relative Youth!” (Six xhéès in one sentence!)

“Whose advice is so valuable that he is happy to send you away for years at a time, for more mating flights than anyone else gets,” said Arilash.

As the two of them hissed at each other, Csirnis flared his shoulder-scales and shook out a length of chain holding a dozen engraved steel ovals. “In service of the mating flight, and in deference to the wishes of the King of Mhel, I suggest we go to some other world. I happened to bring with me the copy of the summary of Quel Quen’s latest surveying trip. They’ll be published in a book in a few decades. Until then I doubt that many other dragons will know about any of these worlds.”

Arilash leaned across the ring and politely snatched the ovals from his talons, and read the first one. “What do we have here? Mavirta. A Basic Ball of a world, inhabited by seven-eyed Basic Bipeds with strong wizardry. Very active gods. Constant wars with the living dead. Lots of magic treasure lying around for the taking… I guess ‘lying around’ means ‘being used by a hero less mighty than an average dragon’. Anyone interested? Osoth?”

Osoth laughed a dry bitter laugh, and said, “I greatly prefer to have amiable relationships with the undead. And by ‘amiable’ I mean relationships in which I am clearly dominant. Mavirta, from that brief description, holds little appeal.”

Tultamaan said, “And strong wizardry and constant wars mean lots of Hard Fights for us, too.”

Llredh breathed a little tongue of flame towards Tultamaan. “For Tultamaan’s fear of wizards and wars, we dare not go to Mavirta.”

Tultamaan rolled off his couch and against my flank. “Do not do that, Llredh! This is a Council-Meeting, albeit an Informal and Undignified one, verging upon the Vulgar and Supremely Petty, compared to my Usual.” Llredh just smirked at him.

“Does anyone actually want to consider Mavirta any more?” asked Ythac.

“I am compelled to admit the logical possibility that, while Mavirta holds little direct appeal to me from the brief description, that the other eleven worlds in Arilash’s hand are still worse. Perhaps, arguendo, the great explorer Quel Quen has gone off his form. Indeed, it is not unimaginable that none of the dozen worlds currently dangling from yon steely chain will please us, and that we might need to resort to different primary sources,” said Osoth prissily.

“Mavirta was not my guess about which of the dozen worlds would make the best place to go,” said Csirnis in a silky voice. “We could come back to it if none of the other eleven are better in the end. But I have read them, and think there are four or five that may serve us well.”

“Well, then, let us shuffle the ovals and read the most useful ones at the end, so that we may feel relieved and hopeful when we come upon them,” said Osoth.

“Or read them first, so that we can dispose of the useless ones in short order,” Nrararn said.

“Useless, no world is her! Conquered and ruled, they can all be!” said Llredh with a little roar.

“Arilash, perhaps you could read Plurdat, the fourth of the ovals, as a counterexample to Llredh’s claim?” said Csirnis. A delicate little claw-thrust into Llredh’s metaphorical eye, that, and particularly elegant for co-opting Arilash into delivering the actual blow.

So Arilash skipped two ovals, and read. “Plurdat. A swamp world, infinite in one direction, finite and unbounded and eight miles in the other direction. What, that would make it an infinite tube? That’s odd! Inhabited by sentient frogs, barbarian ones. No gods. No treasure. Anyone want to go eat frogs in a swamp for a dozen years, with option to rule them forever?” She looked left, she looked right. “I believe we have proven Llredh wrong.” Eight dragons fluffed their wings; one snorted sparks.

Arilash began, “More usefully …”

Osoth chirped, “But what could be more useful than confounding Llredh?”

“More usefully, we may consider Poxis, which is what Quel Quen called it. The natives called it Dust, but we’ve already got a world called Dust, so they’ll have to change. Another Basic Ball inhabited by Basic Bipeds, this time with trunks and forked fingers. They’re really good crafters, good at enchanting magic devices, not much other magic. One fairly active creator god and three fairly active rebel angels opposing him and each other — he must be awful, usually there’s only one rebel angel. Desert world. Constant plagues. That one sounds good to me, the drakes will have plenty of good treasure to hunt there,” said Arilash.

“We must consider precisely what sorts of Trouble, Annoyance, and other forms of Difficulty we might achieve in the presence of four mutually-hating Divine Beings,” said Tultamaan.

“Bah! Against me, against Greshthanu, against girl-named Csirnis, what god shall prevail? There is no god, there can be no god!” proclaimed Llredh. Which isn’t true. Gods, and less than gods, have killed young dragons before. And old ones too.

So we argued for a while about Poxis. Mostly we liked it, since any treasure-hunting we do there is sure to come up with lots of magic devices, and those are excellent treasure.

“Next one is Hove. More Basic Bipeds, this time with hooves, udders, and short fur. High technology, no magic, no gods. Typical Toroid shape, nice terrain. Anyone want to go fight giant robots and not collect enchanted rings for treasure?”

“I do!” called Llredh.

“What, really?” asked Arilash. “It sounds insipid to me, with no magic.”

“The technology, she is amusing to fight. The treasure of technology, she is a special delight! The palladium, the vrexium, the niobium, these metals are greater of value than the gold, the silver, the copper!”

“And also there are other treasures, for the more refined and culturally superior dragon to enjoy. Imagine a magic box that can peform a thousand songs on a thousand different instruments!”, said Greshthanu.

“We all know about your father’s collection from Oisec,” said Arilash. (Which I barely did — I had heard that he had a particularly nice and unusual hoard, but didn’t know the details.)

“My point exactly,” said Greshthanu. “A good hoard from a magic world is respectable, but a good hoard from a technology world is memorable. It’s the kind of hoard that everyone knows about.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” said Arilash. “But anyone who wants to sire children on me had better give me at least one good magic ring too. Stereo sound systems and flashy televisions only count for so much, and that only until they’re broken.”

“I know plenty of repair spells,” said Greshthanu.

“And we are Largely Better Off in a world that lacks both Magic and Gods,” said Tultamaan.

“Except for the giant robots and nuclear weapons,” said Greshthanu. “I’ll bet those would pull your wings off and kill you nice and slow.” (I’m pretty sure that nuclear weapons don’t work that way.)

“So, you’re against it, Greshthanu?” asked Arilash.

“No, I’d be glad to see a giant robot mash Tultamaan’s hind legs ’til they match his forelegs. I’m hardly worried about a giant robot myself!” said Greshthanu.

And so on around. We rejected Arthiothis and Mnenzu and Traa out of hand, got a bit of interest in Orro and Oixe and Fanhanhan, and seriously considered Warvesh and Prane and Desperzio. I really liked Desperzio. The people there were llama-taurs, not Basic Bipeds, and they used science and magic both, and they were already under the control of seven Grand Archangels who didn’t seem to be much stronger than dragons and were friendly to visitors. But there was to be no looting on Desperzio, so none of the drakes liked it, and there were no mountains, so Arilash didn’t like it much either.

And in the end, everyone thought that Desperzio and Hove were acceptable, except Tultamaan, who didn’t find any of these worlds acceptable and wanted to go somewhere very civilized, so we ignored him. Greshthanu and Llredh favored Hove. Osoth, Ythac, and I favored Desperzio. The other three didn’t care much.

So we battled it out. Deciding on the terms of the battle took longer than the battle itself. We offered them fair terms, that’s three hits on one of them would remove that one from the battle and two on one of us would — so each side could have six total — but they laughed and said “No thanks”. So two hits to take anyone out of the battle, giving us an advantage in scoring. Then we had a very long argument about who was allowed to heal who, ending up with anyone can get healed by anyone but after the fight is over and it doesn’t count. Then a shorter one about defensive spells, ending with everyone wearing just their own. And then a very fast one about where we’d fight. Ythac made us fight high up in the air, where we wouldn’t rip up much of the garden.

So Ythac and Osoth and I flew as high as we could. We picked out Greshthanu as our first victim, and circled around, and dived at him from three angles. He looked stupid and stunned as we came close, and I scored his face with lightning breath. But as we closed upon him, he dived in a tight curl and got away from us, and his tailspikes left long bloody slashes on Osoth’s side, and his fangs took a large bite out of my forewing. And we chased him down, and forgot about Llredh for a half-second too long, until his flame breath removed me from the fight (second hit). Llredh leapt on Osoth then, and bit his cheek and clawed his belly (second and unnecessary third hits). Ythac scorched Llredh, but the two big dragons struck at him from both sides, and he didn’t have much of a chance. So we lost.

“Hove! She is our destination,” roared Llredh. “The zeppelins, the robots, the marvels of her technology!”

Osoth glared at him. “It may be some while before you fully appreciate the marvels of technology, Llredh! You have not mastered the mysterious and subtle engineering art of counting to two properly!” He healed his three wounds ostentatiously.

“The full measure with its laigniappe, in war, this is what I provide!” He grinned at me. “In battle, in love, both these places!”

I glared at him as I healed myself. “I suppose we’re going to Hove.”

“Exactly!”

Farewell to Old Friends (Day 8)

A while ago Verimet had sent me an invitation to Pdaalu’s fourth birthday party. That’s a very important birthday for mhelvul. For the very stupid reason that, at that age, the mhelvul could be controlled by their gods. They don’t have their gods anymore. Of course we control them collectively as much as their gods used to. Except that we’re benevolent about it. Their gods were usually more interested in sending armies against each other than in doing anything useful or decent for the other mhelvul.

We don’t let them fight each other much, pace Greshthanu’s clumsy matter of Kbrench and Cartharn. We definitely don’t let them starve or die of plagues either. Uplifters do this because it’s uplifty. Even a fairly downcrushy Downcrusher doesn’t find it economical to let all the slave peoples die.

Also, we’re nice. We control them by force. Not by insinuating psychic tentacles into their minds and depriving them of free will, or wracking them with agony if they disobey, depending on which kind of god it was. The Mhel gods were pretty horrid and clumsy. For one example I remember: the mhelvul have always hated their albinos. One year in the time of the gods, the mhelvul of Pdernuz rioted and burned several albinos alive. So the gods compelled every mhelvul (even the children, even the mhelvul who had tried to stop the burnings (not intentionally, they just commanded the whole region having forgotten that some people there might be innocent)) to submit coitally in a despised way to an albino. They pretty much raped the whole city, and the albinos the most of all. Naturally the mhelvul hated the albinos even worse after that. After Rankotherium and Dessvaria came to rule in Pdernuz, the mhelvul killed six albinos with knives in two days. Rankotherium found out who did it pretty fast, and executed them and their spouses. Nobody got raped, especially no mhelvul children. We punished the perpetrators, not the innocent, and certainly not the heroes. And the mhelvul don’t hate the albinos much more for it. They hate us instead, which is fine. (Or they did for a while. Now, generations later, we’re an ordinary part of life.)

Anyways. Even if there aren’t any more gods on Mhel, the mhelvul celebrate fourth birthdays specially. Even if what they were celebrating was actually repugnant.

(Actually, there’s one god on Mhel. Undead, not live, but whatever. Osoth has him caught in a sapphire bottle. I wonder if he’s revealed any treasures yet, or if Osoth will let him out before he goes to Hove.)

Verimet had invited me to Pdaalu’s fourth birthday party. I don’t think I was taking the place of a paingod, really. Most mhelvul fourth birthday parties go on perfectly well without a dragon being invited, much less attending. Not that the mhelvul could complain if a dragon landed and ate half the pastries or something. (I won’t say that I’ve never landed in a big outdoor mhelvul party and eaten half the pastries. I was eight the last time I did it.) But they’re mostly just mhelvul affairs. Verimet invited me because we went to school together. And I am sort of her patron — I’ve chatted with Rankotherium or Dessvaria on Verimet’s behalf a few times.

I don’t think Verimet expected me to come, when she invited me. I’d missed her daughter’s fourth birthday, and a dozen other major life events.

It was probably rather rude to have my secretary write a polite “No thank you” letter a month ago, and then have me write a more-eager-than-polite “Yes please and I’d like to bring a friend!” letter two days before the event. Oh, well, Verimet is rich. I’m sure she just told her cooks, “Oh, and by the way, we’ll need a bit more food. Enough for two dragons.” Then the cooks must have given that infuriating mhelvul-style nod that means “That’s impossible, we’re doomed, but we’ll do something.”

Then I got Ythac to come with me. This was not so easy.

“Why should I come to a mhelvul fourth birthday party?” he asked.

“Because it’s your last chance to come to a mhelvul party for a dozen years or more,” I told him.

“Good,” he said.

“Or because they’re fairly important subjects of your parents,” I said.

“Definitely not going,” he said.

“You get a wing up on my other fiancés,” I added.

He looked sort of sad at me and didn’t say anything. Usually he comes up with something arch when I say that, but not today.

“Good food?” I tried.

“That’s a good reason for you to go.” Oh, good, Ythac was back to the routine.

“An unshakeable excuse to get away from Rankotherium?” I asked.

“When is this party?” Predictable, is my friend Ythac.

Birthday Party

The first practical issue was how to get there.

«Verimet rented the lawny half of Saint of Hermundro Park. I guess, best if we meet at Yaie Plaza, change there, and walk to the park.» I wrote. That made perfect sense to me. The park is full of flowerbeds and grassy lawns and such, and there’s no good place to land without leaving huge clawmarks. Which wouldn’t stop us for a second if we were doing anything important. But probably Verimet would have to pay for the damages. So I wanted to land in a nice stone-paved plaza.

«That makes no sense,» wrote Ythac. «If we’re going incognito, why change in the plaza with a grand of mhelvul watching?»

«We’re not going incognito. We’re just trying not to scare the four-year-old mhelvul by being gigantic scaly fangy clawy bulgey-eyed death-breathy lizard monsters at them.»

«What about four-year-old mhelvul in the plaza?» he asked.

«I don’t care about four-year-old mhelvul in the plaza. I just don’t want to spoil Verimet’s party.»

«Very well. I still don’t want to walk all the way from the plaza in mhelvul shape. It’s slow and tippy.» he wrote back. I’ve never seen him in mhelvul shape before, actually. That’s pretty usual — nobody but me really likes to take mhelvul shape.

(Except mhelvul, I suppose.)

(In case you haven’t seen one, a mhelvul is a basic biped. They’ve got very flat faces — at least, I think they’re flatter than most other basic biped faces, I’ve only seen a few kinds of basic bipeds so I don’t know for sure. Flatter than dragon faces, by a lot. They’ve got little tusks sticking out of the corners of their mouths, which the more elegant mhelvul dye in pastel colors, and lots of dark hair on top, and lighter hair elsewhere, and no tail to speak of. Five-fingered hands, clawrasp it; that’s caused more arithmetical problems on Mhel in the last few centuries than I can imagine.)

«How about Plujer Street?» That’s a big avenue on one side of the park. About five steps closer to the party, or five dozen mhelvul steps. He flies over his city often enough, but doesn’t walk in it.

«When do we go?» he wrote back.

«Now!»

«Now? Where are you, Jyothky? I thought you were at home.» (I had flown back home, with the Melismatic Tempest, courtesy of Arilash, to speed my trip. Useful grownup travel spell, that.)

«I’m just in sight of the shore. I’ll be at Pdernuz in a ninth of an hour. I suppose I shouldn’t stop and have a dolphin. They’re leaping and splashing down in the water.»

«Not unless you want to show up at the party all over dolphin blood,» he wrote.

«I guess that might be a bit rude.» Though it would wash off in the sea just fine.

«And you’ll be too full for party food,» he added.

«Me? Never!» But I didn’t stop to eat one.

The second practical issue was, what to wear.

Ythac got there first. He was taking up half of Pluger Street. Mhelvul had to walk around him. Mules wouldn’t go anywhere close to him. Mules are stupid. He could kill them from a distance just as easily.

“Ythac! I, Jyothky, am intruding on your territory again! I bring you tribute!” I waved a little book with copper pages at him. That’s polite, isn’t it?

He glared at me. “Jyothky, will you stop it with the formal manners? You’ve been here so much it practically counts as your territory too.”

Which left me waving the book around stupidly. “I’m just being polite. Take your stupid book, OK? And make some space for me to land.”

So he held out his paw for me to drop the book into. I had to levitate to do it — I can’t hover with my wings like some dragons. He didn’t even grab it away from me. That’s a point against marrying him actually — our children would have the worst manners.

“Oh, that’s a nice book!” he said, looking at it. “I do want a nice library as part of my hoard.” Hardly Osoth-style punctilio, but good enough between friends.

“Now, are you going to drive me off? Or make some space so I can land?”

“Right. I’m going to drive you off so I can go to your friend’s birthday party without you. The one that you want to go to and that I wasn’t even invited to and you had to bite my tail to make me come. Will you please stop the formal etiquette?”

“We’re in public, Ythac.”

“We’re engaged, Jyothky,” he said. He turned into a naked mhelvul man, which made a lot of space for me in the street.

I landed next to him, and turned into my Spotty shape, a sixteen-year-old mhelvul girl wearing a school uniform and ink-spots on my cheek. “Good thing we’re not married yet, or I’d annoyed at you waggling your genitalia at a streetful of mhelvul.”

“They’re not my genitalia,” he said. “They’re some stupid mhelvul genitalia. They’re not even homologous to my genitalia, I shifted them from two belly scutes. And I hate wearing clothes.”

“I guess they’re not.” I haven’t actually seen any of his hemipenises yet. They stay behind his scutes unless he’s doing something with them. For that matter, I haven’t seen very many at all. Which is (1) just fine with me, and (2) going to change in a few days.

“Well, they’re attached to you now,” I said. “You should wear something.”

“Well, O Mistress of Etiquette, what is the proper dress to wear to your fiancée’s highschool chum’s granddaughter’s fourth birthday party?”

“I have no idea. Anything decent and pretty, I suppose.”

So he turned back into a dragon briefly. He had to; he’s not that adept at shapeshifting. Then he then turned into a male mhelvul wearing elegant orange robes cut in absolutely the wrong style and not even fitting well, and a ridiculous pointy leather hat.

«Ythac? You do know what those clothes mean, don’t you?» I wrote to him, even though we were in the same place. I didn’t want to be rude to a dragon in front of the mhelvul.

«The robes are for a matron of high caste attending a court function. The hat is for a cheap male hooker.»

«That’s really what you want to wear?»

«I suspect my father will hear about it, in detail,» he wrote, striding towards the park.

«He’ll be embarrassed,» I wrote.

«All for the best,» he answered.

«Don’t embarrass my friend. I’ll bite you if you do.»

«As long as she doesn’t try to hire me, she’ll be fine.»

At the Party

“Oh, wild jumping gods! Spotty! You came!” Verimet squealed, as if she were the schoolgirl she was when we met. She didn’t look much like a schoolgirl elsewise. Her hair was tied in the complicated knots of a clan-matron. Her robes looked a lot like Ythac’s, only she had the right to wear them. Her hat was rather less humiliating. Her tusks were chipped, and dyed a distinctly artificial lavender. She looked to be getting towards feeble. Mhelvul only live about eighty years, and Verimet was close to that.

“Of course I did!” I said. “This is the last time I’ll see you. I wanted to do it properly.”

Her voice got old and quavery. “Are you going to kill me?”

“OK,” I said. I didn’t much want to. But I’d killed Nenuet a few years ago, before the cancer could, and with a bigger farewell party and greater honors and less pain than death in a hospital would bring. She was another schoolmate, and not nearly as good a friend as Verimet. I could hardly refuse Verimet the same incendiary favor if she wanted it.

“Not in front of my grandson? Please, give me one more day!” she wailed, and her scent was full of fear.

“However you like, but soon,” I told her. “I’m leaving on my mating flight in a few days, and I won’t be back for a dozen years.” Verimet looked all horrified at me, so I asked her, “What’s so wrong, anyways? You don’t seem too unwell, and I haven’t heard that you’re in disgrace.”

Well, it took a whole twelfth of an hour for me to understand that she wasn’t asking me to kill her and didn’t want me to. She thought I was being cruel and tormenty when I said “last time I’ll see you” and “do it properly.” Ythac was smirking terribly, and writing me imaginary notes with sketches of me rampaging at a pile of mhelvul stick-figures.

I put Verimet in a comfortable armchair in the gazebo, and intimidated some of her servants into bringing her warm brandy, and let her recover from the shock of discovering that her old schoolday chum and occasional political supporter didn’t want to destroy her for any reason or none at all. Her daughter Abrythy and many of the relatives ran over to take care of her. I wasn’t going to help her recover, and it really wasn’t time to introduce her to Ythac. Ythac helpfully cornered the Arbiter of Civic Morality and started questioning him, loudly, about the morality of various sexual practices.

«What is frottage?» I asked him in an imaginary note.

«Something male mhelvul can do with their silly wiggly genitalia,» he answered. Hmph.

So I obscured myself with the Pyerthu’s Spare Hallucination, and went over the person the party was actually for. He was romping around on a tangle of ropes with a few other children. I knew it was him: he smelled the most like Abrythy. The ceremonial birthday wimple he was wearing should have been my first clue. But I’m a lazy dragon, never think when I can sniff.

“You’re four years old today, Pdaalu?” I asked.

“I’m four years! That is more than three years!” he said proudly. “Today is my birthday! In the park!”

“I know! I flew in ‘specially to celebrate it with you,” I said.

“You did not flyed! You not a bird!” he said. “You a person! You wearing shoes!”

I sat on a wooden bench, and Pdaalu climbed up next to me. “What does wearing shoes have to do with flying?”

“Birds do not wear shoes!” he said. “I wearing a wimple!”

“Birds don’t wear wimples,” I said. “So you must not be a bird.”

“I a bird! I a big sea-vulture! With a birthday!” he said, and flapped his wimple with his hands. His untruth was like the scent of rotten cheese to veriception, but he was obviously having fun making up stories, so I didn’t try to correct his behavior. I don’t think four-year-old mhelvul are trainable to tell the truth; our servants try to keep their children away from us mostly.

“Do you like sea-vultures?” I asked.

He jumped off the bench and started running and swooping around. “I catching fish! I eating fish! I catching fish for you too!” he said.

“Thank you! I am eating the fish you are catching for me!” I said, which was false enough to make me a bit rotten-cheesy too, but that’s OK.

“Here a fish for you!” He pulled a tulip out of a flowerbed and threw it at my face. I dodged the flower, but the mud from its roots got everywhere. I was living up to my nickname fairly well.

“No, no, no!” shrieked Abrythy, running over. “Don’t throw things at Spotty! Never, ever throw things at Spotty! Spotty, please, please, accept our apology … please spare him … he is a child, he knows nothing…”

Which was infuriating! “I am not here to kill anyone! Really! You must think that dragons have nothing better to do with their social calendar than go around murdering old friends and their families! What sort of a bloodthirsty monster do you take me for, anyways, Abrythy?” (Which in retrospect is probably the wrong way to phrase that.)

“We’ve taught him and taught him, never attack a dragon. But he didn’t know it was you, Spotty …” She threw herself to the ground and started grovelling properly.

“It’s just a flower, Abrythy. Get up, you’re scaring the children.” She didn’t get up, so I picked her up and held her over my head. “Besides, you did worse that that when you were a baby. You spit up all over me. Twice. I smelled of mhelvul puke for a week.” My own words weren’t much better than mhelvul puke to veriception — I don’t have a spell that protects me from perceiving my own lies. (Which is the real reason dragons tend not to lie very much. Most of the time we explain it with words like “honor”, and that’s all true of course, because dragons tend not to lie very much, but the core of the reason is, it’s noxious and disgusting to lie, even if nobody else can tell.) I didn’t spend nearly that much time with Abrythy; the actual baby mhelvul who left me reeky was her older brother.

She squeaked at me a bit confusedly. Pdaalu jumped up and down and tugged on my muddy skirt with his muddy fingers. “Flying! Mommy flying now!” So I put her down, on her feet, and picked Pdaalu up and waved him around in the air. He squealed.

«Have you ruined the party yet, Jyothky?» scribbled Ythac.

«Pretty much,» I wrote back. «How about you?»

«I have terrified the Arbiter of Public Morality into admitting that there are circumstances under which he ought to volunteer to be my catamite.»

«What a horrid thought,» I wrote.

«Yes, quite. My father will be so upset. Thanks ever so much for inviting me!»

I waved the guest of honor around a bit more. He flapped his arms and legs, and naturally wound up kicking me in the face. Abrythy covered her eyes and moaned, and smelled all terrified and doomed. I really can tell the difference between a child’s foot and a determined attack, even if I can’t feel the difference. But if the mhelvul were so determined to have me ruin their party, I decided to do it properly.

So I turned into a giant black sea-vulture. “For your birthday, you are going flying!”

“You a bird! You really a bird now!”

I snatched him carefully in my talons, and flapped my wrong number (viz. 2) of wings, and cheated a bit with a levitation spell, and carried him above the treetops. He started off squealing with delight, “I flying! I flying with a sea vulture now!”

Half a minute of flight was enough for him, and he started squeaking, “Down, down now! Put me down! Don’t do that!” Since this was as much for revenge as anything, I didn’t exactly hurry down.

But within the minute, I had deposited him in front of his mother, safe and unharmed. He ran over and wrapped himself in her arms, and caught his left tusk on her tunic and nearly ripped it. I glared at her, and said “I hope you understand what I meant with my little lesson!”

She nodded, though she was lying. She could hardly help it. I’m not sure what I meant with my little lesson exactly either. Something about power and friendly and such, I guess. Anyways, I glared at her a bit, but she started smelling too scared, so I smiled and excused myself and stomped over to the buffet table and ate most of the spicy crab appetizers and listened to mhelvul whisper to each other wondering how upset I really was (a tiny bit with them, a bigger bit with myself) and whether I was going to kill them all (no).

Since that wasn’t working very well either, I went to rescue the Arbiter of Public Morality from Ythac. We made our farewells to Verimet. I guess they’ll be final farewells. Which is sort of a shame, I won’t have any old childhood friends left except Ythac.

Coda: Whining

I wonder if there’s really any point to knowing anyone but dragons. Verimet went from being “roughly my age” to “a grandmother getting ready to dive into death” in less time than I took to go from “young girl” to “slightly adolescent girl”. Also I somehow went from “family friend” to “volatile nemesis”, too. That’s almost insulting. Just because I didn’t visit much in the last dozen years, probably.

Non-dragons are all obnoxious little squirmy things and I don’t like them much just now.

Well, I’m leaving Mhel soon enough. I’ll find out how well I like not knowing anyone but dragons for a duodecade.

Dragons are all obnoxious big scaly things and I don’t like them much just now either.

Especially myself.

Our Farewell Battle (Day 11)

We’re on Hove now.

The farewell battle was rather sweet. I guess. I’ve never been to one before. We all went to Tavrennou Peninsula. Me; Arilash; the fiancés; our parents except for Csirnis’s who aren’t terribly friendly or available; three or four assorted bachelor drakes who seemed disappointed that Arilash was leaving only fifteen years late. More than one of whom muttered some scurrilous variation on “I hope she can stand being cut down to only seven drakes for her mating flight … to say nothing of only one after she’s married.”

A lot of mhelvul in wagons had come there the day before to set up. Two feasts in one week. I hope I can stand being cut down to only what we can hunt during our mating flight. Fortunately, after I’m married, I can eat as much as I want. I’m ahead of Arilash that way, at least.

The symbolic food for the farewell was all things that were nearly cut in half, to be shared. So my father brought me a roasted tapir, and we ripped it in half and each ate some. Then my mother brought me a roasted sheep, and we ripped that in half and each ate some.

As feast foods go, I like the dragoness-coming-of-age food better. When your mhelvul stuff an animal, they use garlic or cheese or mushrooms or chilis or something, and give it lots of flavor. When they mostly cut it in half and roast it, maybe they’ll slosh some wine or honey or spices over it, or not. Then they roast it until the meat is all tender. Then we eat it bones and all. I don’t quite understand what good it does anyone if the meat is tender, since the bones aren’t.

Then Rankotherium slunk voluminously around the field, making sure that everyone had the mighty and fortificational the Hoplonton. And no reprisal spells — he made Ythac take off the Quarnish Reek.

Then the adults attacked us.

We fought them back as well as we could. But we were outnumbered two to one, with each of the two being bigger and more skilled than the one. And of course our parents know our fighting styles better than anyone else. Except that Llredh had practiced a few tricks, and got a few really vicious bites on his parents that even the Hoplonton couldn’t entirely blunt. They were bleeding and proud afterwards, I’ll bet.

My parents and I didn’t fight that seriously. Not with claws and teeth and breath, at least. Nagging, though…

“Jyothky, be sure to copulate with all your fiancés,” said Mother, as Father breathed a delicate little jet of fire around me which wouldn’t have hurt even if I could feel. And hadn’t been wearing the Hoplonton, of course.

“I will, Mother,” I said. Rather grumblesomely. She had been telling me that for the last dozen years or more. And telling me not to copulate with anyone before then, too. Which I hadn’t particularly wanted to, but she never believed that.

“That doesn’t go for you,” Rankotherium shouted at Ythac, at my flank. “If you dishonor me I’ll bite your wings off.”

“And don’t try to conquer Hove,” said Father. I stared at him. That gave Mother an opening to bite my left foreleg. She didn’t bit very hard — there’s no point unless she actually wanted to cripple me — but enough to prove that she could injure me.

“Why would we conquer Hove? We haven’t talked about it,” I said, and blasted Mother with lighting to prove that I could.

“Well, don’t get distracted trying to conquer Hove. It’s hard work, conquering a world and keeping it conquered. You’re going there to get married. Not to go conquering.”

Llredth shouted over at him, “Maybe not. We’re sure going to go plundering though.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” said Father. Mother scowled at him. Mother is a determined Uplifter. That means she wants to improve the lot of the small people that she rules. Sometimes making them happier, sometimes improving their character, sometimes granting them more priveleges or knowledge or whatever. So plundering small people is only justified when you’re doing something good for some other small people. Like, if you kill off an oppressive warlord, you can plunder his properties too. But it would be unkind to plunder them without killing him.

Father is a not-very-determined Downcrusher. That means he wants to keep a firm control of the small people that he rules. Say, to keep them from having enough science or armies to kill themselves off. For Downcrushers, there’s nothing wrong with plundering small people most of the time. Of course, if they’re terribly poor, plundering them is unkind. But it’s usually not worth your time to plunder someone who’s terribly poor anyways. And, oh, plundering half a warlord’s wealth makes for a weaker warlord, which has got to be better than a strong one, right?

(There aren’t any mhelvul warlords left on Mhel. And we’re not plundering the mhelvul anymore anyways. We’re farming them. So most of the discussions about Uplifting and Downcrushing are academic. The dragons on Mhel mostly are on the Downcrushing side though. The mhelvul and their gods were well on their way to killing each other off. They definitely needed all the Downcrushing we gave them then. And, if their practices of constructing gymnasiums are any indication, they’re still better off being ruled with a firm claw. More of that later.)

Anyways, I didn’t want them to start bickering, so I breathed fire on Father and lightning on Mother. “You’re supposed to be driving me off, remember?”

“Right, Jyothky. I’m sorry!” Mother and Father flanked me, then dived at me at the same time. Very elegant of them. They’ve been fighting side by side for a long, long time.

Also very inconvenient. If I wanted to get out of their way — which I did! — I had to land by Arilash. There wasn’t much space left in the lower air. Arilash was setting up the Triangular Cyclonette. A rather bloody Csirnis and a rather less bloody Greshthanu were keeping five big dragons away from her. They looked rather outnumbered, so I waddled over to help them a bit.

“Have a wonderful time, Jyothky!” shouted Mother.

“Go pick out a good one! See you in a dozen years!” shouted Father.

Arilash finished up the Triangular Cyclonette. She spread her wings, and let the wind of fire and niobium and poetry carry her through, to Hove.

“We love you!” my parents shouted in unison, and struck at me with their breath weapons, fiercely.

“I love you too!” I roared, and flew after Arilash.

Over Hove

Arilash’s gate of ice and centuries and death was very high up in the sky, and below us was a ruddy desert wrinkled with mountains.

“This is awfully high up. Were you afraid that some Basic Bipeds would see us come in?” I asked her. We were on the official mating flight. That made it my job to be as mean as possible to the other females, and as nice as possible (including plentiful copulation) with the males. I felt obliged to start on one half of that, at least.

“Well, better high up than inside a mountain. Digging out isn’t such fun! Worst is if you have to turn into stone to keep from dying. Then you have to claw yourself separate from the living rock,” she said.

That sounded a bit defensive, so I tried to press my advantage. “So, you’re not very accurate with your fancy travel magic?”

“Not very!” she said.

Well, that’s infuriating. She didn’t spar words with me. Either she’s not used to being in an extended multi-faceted dominance contest (impossible, she contested with Roroku all the time) or she doesn’t think I’m worth contesting with. I probably should have bitten her. But I’m not used to being in an extended multi-faceted dominance contest, at all.

But Csirnis and Greshthanu were falling out of the gate, looking all battered and bitten. I’m pretty sure that Greshthanu was breathing on Csirnis in the cyclonette. At least Greshthanu is being polite. Or angry, if he hasn’t forgiven Csirnis for not living up to his feminine name.

I tried to fly up to help out, but I was still a bit dizzy, so I kind of half-flew and half-levitated. I have never felt more like a zeppelin in my life. (I wonder if we’ll get to see any zeppelins on this trip. There aren’t any on Mhel of course, we don’t let the mhelvul fly or have any technology to speak of.)

“Do either of you want some healing spells?” I asked.

“Tend to Greshthanu first. His wounds are more bitter than mine, and his mastery of the secrets of life is inferior,” said Csirnis. Of course Csirnis has impeccable manners. I wished I wanted to couple with him right there. That would have been just as impeccable. Of course I didn’t want to do that; I’ve never managed to actually want to copulate.

“Sure! C’mon over here, Jyothky!” Greshthanu obviously expected me to be polite. I wasn’t feeling terribly polite. So I flew over him, by means of levitating more than he was doing so he fell past me, and landed on his back, and healed him with the Rose Rescaler.

Which got a snort of disapproval from Greshthanu. Not that he can manage the Rose Rescaler himself. I doubt he knows healing spells better than the Great Titan Sanitarium. But of course he’s got grown-up magic, and can cast it from afar.

So I bit him. Not that it hurt him much, with Rankotherium’s Hoplonton still snugly wrapped around him.

Which got most of my other fiancés staring at me. They had been whooshing through the triangle and plummeting casually towards us. “Jyothky? Poor little Greshthanu, what is it you are doing to him?” shouted Llredh.

Greshthanu turned his head to peer at me. “Yeah, what are you doing?”

“Teaching you some manners, or trying to. It’s pretty hopeless,” I said.

And that got some scowls from the others. Ythac wrote to me, «Are you competing as a boy? Or is Greshthanu competing as a girl?»

Right. Horrible manners on my part, trying to establish dominance over one of my fiancés. That would have to wait until after marriage, if we’re being traditional. I wrote back, «I need some lessons in manners too. Thanks, Ythac.»

Looking At Hove

I didn’t much want to talk to anyone I was engaged to right after that, and there wasn’t anyone else in the whole world I had so much as met. I thought about flying back through the cyclonette, but (a) that would make me look even less polite, and (b) my parents might kill me. Probably they’d just decide I hadn’t really left yet and send me back to Hove. Polite fictions are very important for dragons.

“I am grown up now. There’s no going back,” I told myself. By thinking it so it wouldn’t make me nasty to veriception.

So I looked around the world that we had so carelessly chosen to be our home for a dozen years. I’ve never been in a Typical Toroid before. Mhel is a Basic Ball. And my parents weren’t much for travelling, so I’d never been anyworld else.

Hove is shaped like a donut with quite a big hole, except reversed: there’s empty space where the donut has dough, and there’s stone and outside-the-world where the donut doesn’t have dough. We’d come in on the outer equator, more or less. Looking down, you know your eyes are lying to you. Geography tells you the world is curved, but it looks flat. That part is just like on Mhel. But on a Basic Ball, the world really curves away from you, like you’re on the top of a hill, and you can’t see the bits that are far away from you.

Inside a Typical Toroid, the world curves in on itself, so the neighboring continents and oceans and the tops of clouds are painted across the walls of the lower sky. Or sometimes you have the illusion of being in a huge valley, until you have your eyes far-focus on the sides of the valley and you see boats and whales in an ocean that looks vertical to you, but is not. The tops of clouds are the most disorienting. I’m used to looking down on the tops of clouds, not across or even nearly up.

Looking up, the sky is just crazy. There’s a huge bar of world across the middle of the sky, with continents and oceans all upside-down to you. That’s the central pillar of the world: the hole of the donut, if you will, as seen from inside the donut. The Word-Fox says that it’s called “Godaxle”, not that there are any gods here except the one we brought, and not that Hove actually turns. The stuff on Godaxle is too far away for my eyes to see anything on really, except for scatters of light along cities and roads at not-really-night.

Night’s not really night here, and that’s craziness too. Most Typical Toroids have only one sun. Hove has four suns, all moving along the … it’s not an equator exactly, equators ought to be on the ground. Center-circle, is that the right word for it? If you slice the donut vertically, you’ll get two C-shaped halves with circles at each end. The sun would be in the middle of one of those circles. The bright one is Virtuet, according to the Word-Fox: a tiny sun of actinic eye-aching blue-white, zooming quickly around the Godaxle. I suppose we’ll call its period a day, even though it’s somewhat shorter than a real day or even an official standard day. (That’s wrong, isn’t it? When I think “real day” I’m thinking of a Mhel day, and we’ve left Mhel behind.)

Next is Verdinet (yes, the Word-Fox told me that name, and all the others; I won’t mention the spellwork again), a big smoggy green tetrahedron. It’s not very bright. It’s huge — bigger than a dozen moons in the sky. It doesn’t move very fast. I wondered what would happen when Virtuet smashed into it. Not much did. Verdinet glowed green, and Hove got a lot dimmer because the main sun was in a cloud. After a while Virtuet zoomed out of Verdinet, leaving the cloud all full of turmoil. After a while it settled down back and looked like a very peaceful and serene smoggy green tetrahedron.

Next is Curset. It’s a black ball. It’s even faster than Virtuet. It hasn’t caught up with Virtuet yet — early tomorrow, if I’m any judge of speeds and chases. I’ll leave some space to fill in what happens when it does, here: This is me editing a previous day’s diary entry the way I said I’d never do. When Curset catches Virtuet, it totally clouds it out for, oh, maybe three hours, leaving the world all illuminated with just dim pink and green from the other two suns. Which I think is a lot longer than it should take for Virtuet to get out. It looked to me like Curset slowed down with Virtuet inside of it, but not quite to Virtuet’s speed. Oh, and Curset doesn’t slow down for Verdinet or Floret, just Virtuet.

Right, Floret. Floret looks like a sea anemone cloud to me — but those things are oversized tornadoes, not cute little stinging tentacles. It’s on the opposite side of Hove from Verdinet, and moving just as fast. It’s too far away for any sort of accurate kineception really, but that’s my best guess. It gives off a nice pink glow. It gets really bright when Virtuet goes through it, and goes out entirely when Curset engulfs it.

I’m sure that most of this doesn’t matter much even to hovens. The part that does matter is day and night. Noon is when Virtuet is directly overhead, except when it isn’t. Night is when Virtuet is behind Godaxle, which is about six hours a day. Eclipse is when Curset engulfs Virtuet; it’s about three hours long, it can happen any time of day or night, and when noon isn’t, it’s because it’s eclipse instead.

This has Serious Practical Consequences. Mostly that we’re going to want sleeping caves deep enough to keep out the sunlight. Night’s not really long enough, eclipse isn’t reasonable enough, and everyone’s temper is going to be feather-thin enough even if we all get enough sleep.

I suppose it has more serious consequences for hovens. Though what’s more serious than nine highly cranky dragons around, I really can’t say.

The further sky is all muddly and marbley. I can’t see too many details: a sea here, a mountain range there, I guess they are. The red streak might be a desert.

The wind seems to mostly go the same way the suns do. So I’m pretty sure there’s air all the way through the inside of the toroid, and all of the same pressure except where it’s hot or cold or something. Ghastrantos had one of his characters (Mielar, was it?) fly all the way across Toku Spoka in Wings Over Doux-Saloux, and Toku Spoka is a Typical Toroid too, so I suppose air like that is Typical and the way that Mhel does it, with air thinning out the higher you go, is unusual.

Mating Flight, per se.

We came in over a desert. A nice healthy nonviolent nonindigo desert of inanimate orange-red sand with scrubby plants growing in it and obnoxious animals eating them and vicious animals eating them and gangly rude birds flying overhead to eat everything else after it dies.

So it’s nothing like home. I miss my raspy stormy purple sands. And I’m going to have to bathe in the river like everyone else.

Can I go home yet?

(Answer: No. I’ve got to be a good little dragoness and take up to twelve years and get married first.)

So we set off to find some good caves. Which means that the larger drakes flew around staring at things and not doing much good. Arilash and I tried to do that too, but Csirnis pointed out that this was the first real competition between the drakes and it wouldn’t help if one of us won it. Osoth landed and started dripping heavy quicksilver words on the ghosts of dead hovens, though it turned out to mostly be dead hoven bovines which weren’t much help. Nrararn conjured the airy spirits of Hove, and got into some sort of perplexing spat with them about the precise amount of service he can get from them for one hyargique-qua, whatever that is.

And Ythac cast some grownup spell, the Draft of Direction I think, and took us right to a nice pair of big dry sandy warm caves at the base of the Khamrou Voresc mountains.

“We’ve got two good caves. One for Arilash, one for Jyothky, and the rest of us stay with whichever one we’re coupling with?” said Nrararn, practically.

“Thats’ no good. I’ll be coupling with both of them most of the time,” said Llredh.

“Will you, now? Seems to me you’ll be waiting in line ’til I’m satisfied,” said Greshthanu.

“Until we’re satisfied,” I hooted. I’m trying to get in the right spirit, really I am.

“Which for you is, well, probably never,” said Arilash. “I’m going to have to come rescue our poor helpless drakes from your clutches.” She is definitely in the right spirit.

“I do believe that Arilash has an Extremely Perspicuous Point,” said Tultamaan. “If the dragonesses and their current consorts get the Homelike and Cozy Caves, what homes do the other ones have? Will they Sleep Upon the Sands and Enjoy the Starry Skies, which upon this sort of world actually are Lacking In Stars? And where will they keep the Loot with which they will Inspire the Dragonesses to Further Amatory Activities?”

“That’s your problem. Won’t be mine,” said Greshthanu.

“What loot, anyways? We’re in an empty desert.” said Nrararn. “Lucky to find enough food.”

“There’s a big hoven city under an hour’s flight that way,” said Ythac, beaming a huge smile at Llredh. He cast the Word-Fox. “Called Ghemel. And there are smaller ones closer. Plenty to loot I think!”

Llredh chuffed. “The giant robots, I shall rend them apart! The swoon and the awe, they shall fall upon the girls!”

“Who can destroy them perfectly well themselves,” said Arilash.

“I will do it with such elegance and grace that you will instantly wish to couple with me!” said Llredh.

“Unpersuasive! I need no extra stimulation to wish to instantly wish to couple with you!” said Arilash, and flew in front of Llredh and spread her claspers lewdly. (Is it really lewd if you’re showing yourself to a fiancé? Maybe it’s just polite. Can it be both?) He responded in the drakish version of the same.

They circled each other twice, then came together with a loud crash, belly-scutes grinding against each other, eight wings pumping awkwardly to keep them more or less stationary in the air.

“Levitate, levitate! You’re falling!” hooted Greshthanu.

“We both know what we’re doing!” shouted Llredh back. “Unlike you!”

“Hey, I am not such a novice! I know how to mate with a dragoness,” yelled Greshthanu. “You have been mounting them for duodecades, yet, somehow, you still have no clue how to do it well!”

“I wouldn’t exactly say ‘no clue’,” warbled Arilash. “Speaking as an experienced dragoness who is well on her way to satisfaction from his efforts.”

«I don’t want to watch this,» Ythac wrote to me. «Perhaps you and I can go inspect the caves?»

«I don’t want to watch either,» I wrote back. «Let’s go.» I thought a bit and added, «Are you going to mate with me down there?» Most of the drakes seemed to be finding Llredh and Arilash’s performance a bit inspiring. Csirnis and Greshthanu were preparing to fight who would be next. I guessed that Ythac was trying to be kind to me. I’d rather not have my apparantly highly nonvirginal rival critiquing my first attempt at mating.

«Forgive me, but I’m feeling a bit unsettled. I’ve never seen my father so angry,» he wrote back. Which must be saying something. Rankotherium was always kind to me. But one day he ripped Ythac’s right forewing to ribbons for some minor bit of cowardice — choosing a “Caramelle” instead of a “Dominance” to fight Chevethna, and then healing her twice. Which was unfair I thought — there’s nothing cowardly about a “Caramelle” except the name, and that’s the fashionable way to fight duels these days anyways.

«I’m not in quite the hurry that Arilash is either,» I wrote back. «Let’s just look at the caves.»

Caves and Monsters

They’re big and deep, twisty enough so that Virtuet’s light doesn’t sneak far into them at any hour of the day. The stone is some soft orange stuff that isn’t exactly sandstone. It’s not as hard as claws. That afternoon, everyone else claw-planed their sleeping places flat of all the little bumps. I just picked a vaguely flat spot that wouldn’t do any actual damage when I slept there. Everyone else is just over-sensitive. Or, well, just plain sensitive.

But the fun part of my afternoon wasn’t the sex (which didn’t happen). We caught a hoven.

One of the caves was all nice and empty, as far as we felt like looking.

The other cave wasn’t. It smelled of all sorts of things: sweaty mammals, oiled metal, cloth, spiced meat, uncleaned privy, this, that, and the other. We’d landed in a flutter of wings that didn’t leave any tracks in the sand by the cave entrance, but there were winding trails on the path to the river, as though a thick-tailed creature had walked back and forth several times without leaving footprints.

“What’s that?” I wondered. “Are there local dragon-cousins?” But it didn’t smell a bit ophidian.

“Let’s go and see.” Ythac folded his wings and stalked into the cave, mouth half-open, the fires ready at the base of his throat.

Someone inside growled at him in a deep voice, a complicated guttural language that vaguely reminded me of strangling an unusually eloquent cow. I stuck my head over Ythac’s shoulder to see. It was a hoven, of course: a Basic Biped, with hooves on his feet, a single smallish teat or udder on his chest, big rectangular eyes flat on his round face. He had short grey fur all over. (I looked at his picture books afterwards — hovens come in grey, dim blue, dim red, dim purple, and most combinations. Lucky ones have stripes.) Unfortunately he had ten fingers, like mhelvul — I hate that, it means they use decimal not duodecimal.

Anyways, he was holding a big gun in both hands. He shouted a war-cry. (Let’s give him that. It might have been the name of his favorite dessert or anything, we couldn’t understand it.) He shot at us with the gun. Little metal bullets spattered off our scales and protective spells, and bounced off the rocks.

“That’s a shame. We’ve got to kill him now,” I said.

“Are you sure?”, Ythac asked.

“Well, he attacked us,” I said. “He still is attacking.” The hoven had picked up a big axe and was trying to split Ythac’s chin.

“Pretty brave of him,” Ythac said.

“Right. It’s the brave ones we need to kill. Otherwise they’ll all be encouraged to fight at us.” Which is only common sense. Also one of the few things that my parents agree on about punishing mhelvul.

“That’s how it goes on dragon-worlds. This one’s still unconquered,” Ythac pointed out. “They aren’t under the law really. They don’t even know the law.”

“Oh, you’re right. I had forgotten that.”

“Besides, he’s so cute. Look, he’s standing on a ladder trying to hit my eye.”

“Absolutely fearless when cornered,” I agreed. “What are our choices, since it sounds like we’ve got some?”

“Defeat him in some thunderingly obvious and overwhelming way. After that we can take him for a slave if we don’t want to kill him.”

“It would be convenient to have a few slaves.”

The hoven whacked Ythac in the gum with the edge of the axe. Ythac yelped, “Hey! I felt that!”

“Lucky lizard. I’d trade a grand of slaves to be able to feel that.”

“Sorry, sorry.” He didn’t sound very sorry.

“Do you want to thunderingly defeat him, or should I? We shouldn’t both do it. We’d squish him.”

“I’ll do it.” Ythac brushed the hoven with the edge of his hukuchô. The hoven howled in involuntary fear and leapt backwards away from him. Hoven, ladder, and axe landed in three separate places. The hoven picked himself up and tried to run, limping considerably from a leg badly twisted in the fall.

Ythac pounced on the hoven — Ythac pounces very gracefully, I wish I could do that — and snatched the hoven up and scrubbed him with the Great Titan Sanitarium for half a heartbeat, until his leg wasn’t twisted anymore.

“You’re so nice to your slaves, Ythac.”

“He’s not going to be a very good slave with a bunged leg, now, is he?”

“Well, pass him over to me. I want to learn the language. You can loot the cave,” I said.

“I caught him, I get to use him first,” he said.

“I’m the dragoness. You need to impress me,” I helpfully reminded him. But by that time he had cast the The Spilling of the Speech. (If I ever invent a spell, I am not going to start the name with “the”.)

“OK, here’s your hoven.” He handed the squirming man over, and I cast the same spell, and learned the whole Ghemelian language. It’s big and complicated and mostly stupid… any language without an aorist tense is stupid. Also it’s not called Ghemelian, it’s stupidly called Ursk Eskarak, but I’m going to call it Ghemelian to be tidy.

“Who are you, hoven?” I asked him in Ghemelian.

“You speak?” he said, sounding all surprised.

“Dragons all do. Now, who are you?”

“I am Murghal dvo Sdrezi tho neng Nhestravvath.” He was somewhat calmer. “Put me down, and depart from my home immediately.”

“It’s my home now, mine and my rival’s. The drake is going to live next door. You can have it back after we leave.”

“I shall not leave it! This is my final refuge — the armies of Trest have left me nothing else — and I shall not be further pushed to the margins and the deserts!”

“You’re not leaving it. You’re our slave.”

“I am slave to no man!”

“Exactly!” I beamed at him. “You’re slave to a girl dragon!”

He wasn’t instantly convinced. I held him in my forepaw and brushed him lightly with my hukuchô, and he screamed and soiled himself and tried his best to flee. When he was able to speak coherently, I sent him to the river to wash up, tracked him down a bit when he tried to run away, brushed him with my hukuchô again to punish him, let him wash up again, and finally sat on the orange sands of the Khamrou Voresc to learn a bit about Hove.

The cyclonette had dumped us on the outer fringes of a war. Murghal was a great general of Ghemel, the ruler of one of its three armies. He was triumphant and mighty and brave in many battles … as long as they were battles against his own people. He made quite a military career crushing rebellions and insurrections, of which there were many. “Uncle Holder”, the hoven (of course a hoven, there’s nobody here but hovens) who ruled Ghemelia for some long time, had many enemies.

Then, Trest came conquering Ghemelia. “They said it was a war of liberation, to free us from Uncle Holder. Free us! We, who elected Uncle Holder every year of our own free will — not a single Ghemelian voted against him these last ten years! So well was he loved!” exclaimed Murghal.

“If he was loved that well, why so many rebellions and insurrections?”

“Hah, those were fools and degenerates.”

“Didn’t they vote against him?”

He looked insulted. “Fools and degenerates may not vote. Who would honor a leader elected by fools and degenerates?”

I giggled. “I suppose that voting against Uncle Holder guaranteed that you were declared a fool and degenerate?”

He sputtered and fumed. “No such thing! It would start the proceedings, yes, but there were plenty of legal protections so that the sensible and honorable would never be branded.” And yes, he meant branded literally, with a hot iron burning the initial of “Fool” and/or “Degenerate”, as appropriate, on the hoven’s forehead.

“I don’t know much about elections. Or laws made by hovens, for that matter. So, what’s Trest, and what did they do?” I asked.

“Trest is a vast blood-sausage, full of fat and arrogance! Trest is the Realm of Lies and Wickedness! Trest is the Handmaiden of the Anti-God, the orifice from which the spiritual shits enter the world!” And on and on for quite some time.

“Let’s start with some basics. Is Trest a king? A country? A religion?” It’s a country, a vast and corpulent and corrupt country, Archconsul Shuvanne says they’re spreading their pestilant political system everywhere, but they invaded Ghemelia as a reprisal for Ghemelia joining the Alliance of Freedom, and out of their greed and arrogance, and on and on with the insults until my next question.

“What is the Alliance of Freedom?” A number of countries whose hearts are in the right place but whose legs are slow and whose hands are tied. The Alliance of Freedom is the anti-Trest. (So: The anti-handmaiden-of-the-anti-god? The orifice from which the spiritual shits depart the world? I am unclear on this point, and Murghal simply adds imprecations.) It is an alliance which intends to keep Trest under control, but does not.

“What was the war like?” Murghal had a great deal to say about that. Cutting out the obscenity, the war was, first of all, fast. Trest used a smallish army of cowards, and Ghemelia a huge one, every one a brave and mighty veteran. (Presumably, mostly against their own people.) Trest’s army had technology though. Airplanes and zeppelins, some of them automated. Yay, zeppelins! Also for the drakes’ sake, yay, we will get to fight great technological airships, if not actually giant robots, if we want! Huge boats armed with huge guns, and smaller trucks armed with smaller but still quite large guns. And, if their soldiers ever got into the least bit of trouble, they could call in the grand artillery. Far away, in the region of Muld, over there (about a third of the way up the curve of the world) there is a vast and mighty projector of a terrible purple twistor ray. All of Ghemelia is in its effective range — indeed, half of Hove is. And nearly all of Hove is in range of at least one of Trest’s projectors.

“So, how did the war go?” The quick answer was, terribly. The Peace Everywhere Array smashed all the important strongholds and airports of Ghemelia in the first two days. The rest of the Alliance of Freedom didn’t send much support — they simply didn’t have time. Ghemelia’s vast army of brave and mighty veterans resisted Trest’s smallish army of cowards less effectively than Murghal himself had resisted Ythac. Viz., they mostly didn’t even bother putting up an ineffective fight, they just ran away before the Tresteans came. Every bit of Ghemelia that Trest wanted to devastate was devastated, and their soldiers died by the grands. Trest lost nineteen soldiers. Twelve of those died when a truck drove over a bridge that fell down. I suppose those are actually Ghemelian kills, since the Ghemelian government built that bridge using the cheapest materials and worst construction they could find.

“Not very well, then?”

Murghal allowed as how the war had not gone very well. He was one of the main targets of the Tresteans. “Though I did not use extnuvia against the Palisees — lies, all Trestean lies! If I had such a thing available, which I did not, I would not have needed it against such a pitiful foe as the Palisees.” It seemed to be the moment to inform Murghal about veriception, just to save time when he considered lying about something we cared about. Yes, he had used extnuvia, some sort of rare mineral which compels hovens to eat themselves, against the Palisees. He regretted it greatly; he should have saved it for the Tresteans.

“So, what are you doing out here?” He is hiding from the Tresteans. He has supporters in Ghemelia — many supporters — they will rise up and destroy the Tresteans. Now a few of them bring him food and news every week or so. Fortunately the Tresteans are fools and degenerates, so they cannot find him.

“They don’t sound like they’d vote for Uncle Holder,” I agreed, but I made him tell me the full truth anyways. He’s got a few active supporters, though there are plenty of people who would probably follow a native — any native who had a chance, really — against the conquerers.

Ghemelia is rather a hellhole though. Everyone has some reason to hate everyone else, and the Trestean conquerors most of all.”

“If we were feeling nice and helpful, we’d set the place in order ourselves,” I said.

“We’re here to get married. We are not going to go conquering. I can’t think of anything I’d like less than trying to set a place like this in order,” said Ythac in Ghemelian. He had joined us about as the war was going terribly, but mostly been quiet. “I’ve studied governments and all, I know how to do it right, but you have to start with some bit of unity.”

Murghal looked crafty, and started trying to talk us into attacking the Tresteans.

“No. We’re going to live in our cave — the one that was yours — and enjoy each other a lot. We’re not going to fight anyone,” I said.

“Except each other,” added Ythac. “And you, if you keep trying to run away.”

“Anyways, it’s time for you to do your nightly duties,” I told my new slave.

“What are his nightly duties?” asked Ythac.

“I don’t know. Go to the cave and see what you’ve got that’s good for polishing scales. I want my fiancés to look their best.” I used the plural because Osoth had landed beside me, and Csirnis was circling overhead.

“I am beautiful and elegant!” said Osoth, rearing up and spreading his intricately-patterned grey grey grey wings.

“And dusty and bloody,” I said. “Murghal, go polish my fiancé until he’s all shiny.” That’s a job for three or four well-equipped and well-trained small people per dragon, so it was pretty hopeless. I couldn’t think of anything else for him to do though. He looked like he’d mostly be good as a secretary, not a laborer, but my social calendar just said “copulate with fiancés” every day for the next twelve years. Anyhow you can’t let slaves go idle. I think that Murghal actually polished Osoth’s left knee a little before Osoth decided it was useless and sent him off.

Oh, and there wasn’t much loot. Murghal had a variety of weapons, for shooting bullets and smallish purple twistor rays. He had some nice spices, but not enough for even one meal for all of us, and he said he didn’t really know how to cook in any case. He had some books, but neither Ythac nor I was much interested in hoven pornography. (I should have brought some dragon pornography … not that I had any on Mhel … maybe Arilash has some. Not that she really needs it, and not that she’d be willing to help a rival particularly.)

The others had been drifting in, so we stopped chatting with the useless new slave, and set up our haphazard home for the next duodecade. Arilash and I took over Murghal’s cave, and made him sleep outdoors. He complained a bit at the lack of secrecy, since he’s in hiding from an entire army. He’s being silly though. What could an army of small people do against nine dragons?

Coda: Scores

Well, this is what the mating flight is about, and what the codas are about too.

Let’s see. Greshthanu gets one for first flirtation. Llredh two for first copulation. Ythac one for finding the caves, and one for exploring them. That’s about all.

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 12 12
Llredh 0 2 2
Ythac 12 2 14
Greshthanu 0 1 1
Osoth 0 0
Nrararn 0 0
Tultamaan -12 -12

I was going to start everyone at 0. But I was really impressed with how Csirnis came to Mhel, and I’ve liked Ythac for years, and Tultamaan’s forelegs are just so awful to look at.

Oh, and if anyone else’s counting fiancée points… I think I lost one ’cause Arilash had the Triangular Cyclonette, and three from fighting Greshthanu, and two more for letting Arilash get the first legitimate intercourse. Maybe I get one back for my part of getting Murghal, I’m not sure. I don’t even know if the boys are counting fiancée points. Maybe that’s a girl thing.

Coda: Fighting

I know I talk about fighting a lot. It’s very important for dragons — we are predators after all! Lots of us try to get into at least one fight a day, a practice bout of sparring if nothing else. I don’t, I’m not that aggressive. But two days out of three, even for me.

First of all, simply clawing or breathing at somedragon once isn’t real fighting. Small people usually use words for what we mean by that. They might say, oh, “Your mother copulated extramaritally with a black poodle, and from this union you were born.” Dragons just attack, once, instead. It’s just as expressive. A light firebreath on someone who has firebreath (and is thus not going to be hurt so much by it) could be the equivalent of saying, “Oh, pish! Scurry off quickly for a romantic encounter with a dry starfish!” Biting someone’s neck hard might be more like saying, “How is it you do not stink more than you do? For surely your proper place in the universe is in the drain of the Grand Sewer, so that the filth of twelve grand mhelvul may flow across you you. Perhaps you avoid this situation because, comparing itself to you, even the filth itself would become proud.”

Actually, the small people way might be more creative.

Anyways, those aren’t real fights. Though they sometimes turn into real fights.

Rhedosaur’s Forms of Fighting lists 541 different kinds of standard rules for blood duels — those are the ordinary kinds of fights, one dragon against another, out for blood rather than any serious injury. That’s very silly, since lots of them are the same except for changing a number or a rule. Like, the difference between “Questro Intangible” and “Dominance” is that the “Questro” goes to four hits and the “Dominance” to five. Not really worth having two unrelated and unmemorable names for — or the ten others, since a fight in that form to one hit is a “Babble of Raises”, and a fight to twelve hits is a “Duello Prolongato”, and so on for the other numbers. The only name that makes any sense there is the “Dominance”, since usually actual dominance contests were done by “Dominance” in Rhedosaur’s day. Or occasionally a seven-hit “Krage’s Glory”, if they were feeling more fighty.

Then there are the variations that let you heal your opponent and have it count as a hit — that’s “Caramelle” for five hits, or “Quest for the Narnu” for seven, if you’re trying to follow Rhedosaur. Those are fashionable among my friends now. They’re a good combination of hard (’cause if you’re paying attention, you can block the healing spell with your vô) and nice (’cause you get to show your opponent that you don’t actually want to hurt them.) Rankotherium, Ythac’s father, despises this fashion and says it’s making us all soft and his son worst of all. I think he’s being ridiculous.

The most important distinction is between friendly and unfriendly fights. Mostly we have friendly fights. There are a few choices of rules to them, but mostly they end up being “don’t hurt your friends in ways they can’t heal.” So we usually strike at legs, wings, or tail — wings are the top choice, because they make a nice satisfying crunch when you bite them, and they’re easy to heal. Or shallow slashes at the body — deep enough to get through scales and hide, but not so deep that they get to entrails. If you’re very agile you can claw someone’s eye out. I’ve never managed that, but it’s very elegant if you can. Breath is fine, except darkness breath and other ones that leave long-term damage, but burning a hole through someone is no friendlier than biting one through. Pretty much, if the Great Titan Sanitarium — the first real healing spell that everyone learns, but not a very good one — can’t heal it, you shouldn’t be doing it in a friendly contest.

I have to be careful in friendly fights. I have, when I was young, kept fighting after I had lost because I didn’t notice I had been hit. That’s worse than losing, it’s rude. My friends usually remember to shout when they hit me. I’ve got the Sentrydog and such analysis spells to tell me about it too, but they’re sometimes stupid and I need to be careful.

Unfriendly fights are nastier. You’re still trying not to permanently maim your enemy. But it’s fine if you break their back, say, or do something else that will take them a few years to heal. Of course you’re obligated to save their life if you do something like that — if you break someone’s back while they’re in the air, you have to get them to the ground safely at least. All the minor wounds that matter so much in friendly fights either count just the same in unfriendly ones (“Watashi’s Coyote”, etc.), or don’t (“Tea for Disharmony”, etc.). That sort of distinction is how Rhedosaur got his 541 forms.

I’ve never been in an unfriendly fight. Dr. Dnazhvhens told me that I should avoid them. I’d be at a terrible disadvantage — I couldn’t tell if I had been hurt badly, so I wouldn’t know when to heal myself. Anyone in an unfriendly fight risks a years-long injury. I’d pretty much be begging for one. Not that unfriendly fights are all that common. Ythac has only been in one, I know for a fact, and that one with his father; he lost of course, but didn’t get injured very badly, because his father doesn’t want to hurt him. Arilash and Osoth have never been in one either.

If you do kill someone in a fight that’s not supposed to be to the death, you’d better start making reparations immediately. You won’t get away with much of your hoard or your status, that way, but you might get away with your life. This doesn’t happen very often though. We mostly know when to stop, and we mostly get very clear-headed and accurate when we’re angry.

If it’s a bigger fight than just one dragon against one dragon, the 541 choices aren’t enough. Then it’s time to make a war treaty. You agree in advance what the stakes in the fight are — when and where the fight will be, what can be destroyed, who can be injured and how much, what the penalties are if you go beyond those limits, and anything else. Like, the fight to drive adult children away onto their mating flight has some very strict and customary rules: the parents outnumber the children about two to one, and are trying to injure them some but nothing that will actually leave us injured for very long. They’re not supposed to kill us unless we won’t leave.

So don’t worry if we seem violent towards each other by small people standards. It’s all friendly. Or, if an unfriendly one shows up somehow, I’ll point that out.

Mating Flight, Proper (Day 12)

Editorial Note

We spent some time on the mating flight proper, hanging around in the desert and fighting and challenging each other, before things started to go a bit wrong, then very very wrong. I am going to show you my first diary entry from that time. The later ones are generally like it, except sketchier. By the end I was just writing down the drakes’ scores most days — or rather, intending to write them down and putting it off, then writing them down later and probably wrong, or not at all. I used a variety of strategems to avoid actually mating with anyone, which was quite irresponsible of me. Finally on day 26 I decided that I was going to write something so I would have something to do. — JyTNM, bb

Dragoness Fights

I woke up with Arilash grinding my chin on the floor hard enough to smooth my sleeping-place out some, and shouting into my ears, “Wake up! Wake up!”

“Hey! That presumably hurts!” I said, and tried to bite her forepaw, but she was holding me too tightly. I breathed winter frost on her where I could reach, which was her underbelly and one hind leg and part of her tail.

Which might have been a bad move tactically, since it turned a rather brutal but polite wakeup into an actual dominance fight. Starting out a dominance fight with the other dragon actually holding your head is the sign of either supreme skill and confidence, or supreme confusion. I did not demonstrate any notable skill or confidence.

Afterwards, she healed her frostbite, and I healed a big bite on my left forewing, another big bite on my neck, a huge claw-wound on my flank, a small claw-wound on my neck, and some large claw-holes in my left hindwing. Oh, and some slight abrasions on my chin.

“First round to Arilash” said Osoth.

I didn’t have the pride to even glare at him for that.

Drake Fights

Arilash strutted and I slunk out to the desert floor, the big brick-sandy spot in front of the two caves. Most of the drakes were there, in a loose semicircle. “OK, they’re both up!” said Greshthanu. “Now, we can fight.”

Nrararn leapt into the air, and started a bit of a sorcery to call clouds into the sky. Greshthanu looked up at him, and chuckled. “I think we can fight down here well enough!”

Nrararn snorted, and blue-white sparks danced around his nostrils. He waited until just before an astral heartbeat, and breathed a tight harsh lightning blast at Greshthanu. Greshthanu, of course, had tilted his Small Wall against lightning, and braced his vô behind it, and it spattered off and just fused bits of sand into tiny globs of ugly red glass. Greshthanu leapt at Nrararn, using some sort of grownup combat spell to give extra speed to his pounce.

Nrararn’s astral heart beat then, and refilled his whefô, so he did get to breathe at Greshthanu almost immediately. That’s good tactics, by the way, giving you the advantage of two full breaths in quick succession. Greshthanu was expecting it, I presume, but the second breath did scorch his face nicely, with his spell and his vô weakened by the fight.

But then Greshthanu was on him, clawing and biting fiercely. Nrararn’s sylphs whispered advice in his ears, but Greshthanu was the faster. He ripped up Nrararn’s ribs, and bit his face and got a fang into his left eye, and swatted him in the back with his tail and left big cuts from his tailspikes. Nrararn bit Greshthanu’s chin nicely, but Greshthanu clawed his right foreleg while he was doing that. Then Greshthanu flung his tail around Nrararn’s back and squeezed, hard. Nrararn’s woven mane-lightning scored and seared Greshthanu’s tail, but … that was five good hits on Nrararn, and only three on Greshthanu.

The two drakes split apart. Greshthanu circled over our heads — Arilash and mine. Nrararn landed, and put the Rose Rescaler into his eye in a hurry before the wound had time to set. “First round to Greshthanu,” said Arilash, and smiled at him and spread her wings.

“And I will treat this golden prince of Chiriact just the same, when it comes time for that!” said Greshthanu.

“Perhaps you will,” said Csirnis sweetly, sitting on his haunches on a big rock. “Or perhaps you will be more devastating. I have no mane, nor lightnings to braid in it, after all. Would you like to show off your prowess now?”

A big boast from Greshthanu, a shy little demurral from Csirnis. Greshthanu could hardly refuse. Which I think is a nice bit of strategy from Csirnis, since Greshthanu must have been a little bit shaken from the wounds Nrararn gave him. Of course Greshthanu had the advantage of position, being well above Csirnis’ head. So all of us thought that the situation was rather in Greshthanu’s favor.

“Now we will fight in the Caramelle, dainty princess lizard!” roared Greshthanu, and dived at Csirnis. With his battle spell and his advantage of height, I was expecting him to land quite hard on Csirnis and more or less win the fight right there.

But Csirnis slipped off the rock gracefully, and swatted at Greshthanu with his tail. Which fouled Greshthanu’s wings at just the wrong time. Which meant that Greshthanu slammed face-first into the rock at a full dive, and got both left wings badly wrenched. Csirnis casually raked Greshthanu’s flank with his wingclaws and his foreclaws while Greshthanu was picking himself up.

The rest of us were staring, so much! Csirnis had gotten all five hits on Greshthanu before Greshthanu had so much as touched him. And using wingclaws, yet. Nobody takes those seriously. They’re useless!

Csirnis just smiled sweetly at Greshthanu, and said, “Thank you. I should be glad to meet you in combat again, under more even circumstances, Greshthanu.”

After that, all the drakes had to challenge Csirnis immediately. Llredh went first, and that was a much more ordinary sort of fight. The two of them circled around in the air, and struck and breathed at each other. Csirnis did win, but only five to four. Ythac fought a very conservative fight, and lost five to three. Osoth, who really isn’t that much of a fighter, only got one hit, and that because Csirnis wasn’t expecting graveyard dust breath. Nrararn got into an intricate aerial duel with Csirnis, and his sylphs and the stormcloud he had prepared but not used for fighting Greshthanu worked very well for him; he beat Csirnis, five touches (four of them lightning) to four. Tultamaan went last, and the fight was over in less time than it will take me to write the next sentence. Poor Tultamaan. (Yes, that’s the sentence.)

Then it was time for lunch, or rather time for some drakes to get us some desert mammals to eat for lunch.

After lunch, there was more fighting, of course. Arilash copulated with some more drakes with such artistry that everyone applauded. I wanted to go home, or anywhere else.

Coda: Scores

Explain

Here are today’s scores. I wrote down the scores from last time (which didn’t make it into my diary, did they?), and how much I thought each fiancé should get, and what that made of their scores this time. My Household Economics and Finance teacher would be so proud of me, she might almost think I paid any attention to her.

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 12 8 20
Llredh 2 2 4
Ythac 14 -1 13
Greshthanu 1 0 1
Osoth 0 -1 -1
Nrararn 0 3 3
Tultamaan -12 -3 -15

Interlude with Dead God (Day 25)

Murghal was spending a great deal of time in one of the side rooms of the drakes’ cave, and there were little prickles of magic coming out of his ears when left. So I had to check. “Murghal! What are you doing back there?”

“I’m tending to your treasures,” he said.

“What treasures? The drakes haven’t done much looting yet,” I said.

“There’s a blue bottle, looks like sapphire,” he said. “It needed polishing.”

“Oh, that’s Osoth’s pet god,” I said. “What’s he doing?”

“Doing? It is a bottle,” said Murghal. Just because he can’t perceive magic is only a mediocre excuse for him not perceiving magic.

So I waddled past him and stuck my head in the side cave. Xolgrohim’s little sapphire jar was tucked in a corner of the rock. “Hi there,” I said.

“And the greetings of the day and the century to you as well, child of conquerers,” said Xolgrohim. His voice was like ashes painted on the air. It wasn’t sound. I don’t know if Murghal could have heard it even if Xolgrohim had been talking to him.

I curled up on the floor of his cave. “I hope you’re enjoying the mating flight,” I said, mostly to be polite.

“It is an infinite improvement over being dead,” he said. “Beyond that, though … Please forgive me, for I intend not the slightest offense, but watching the children of my killers disport themselves is only a limited pleasure.”

“Would you like to tell me about how you died?” I asked. Osoth says that’s a polite question for the undead, nearly always.

“Yes, I would. Ztesofaum my master had a dozen assassins expert in the seven kinds of dagger and the seven kinds of venom. We had a hundred monks expert in the eleven subtle assaults and the eleven subtle defenses. We had ten thousand crusaders garbed in blessed steel. We had walls of concrete reinforced by iron bars and ancient prayers. We had harnessed the lightnings and the meteors as our weapons. Seven great armies of mhelvul and their gods had come upon the pyramid, and been broken, and receded forth from it. When Rankotherium came, all these things melted,” he said.

“Yes, Rankotherium is rather imposing even for a dragon,” I said.

“But before Rankotherium came, Ztesofaum told me and seven of my fellows to preserve Dolau his daughter, and Molau his son, and his tray of secrets. We fled by hidden ways to the Tumult Sands, the indigo desert, the furthest and most terrible of lands, and there we hid. In time, we hoped, the dragons would become weak and careless. In time, we hoped — and this, too, you must forgive me — we could free Mhel from your bitter talons and cruel breath.”

“We’re not that bad. The mhelvul are mostly happier with us than with you.”

“Unfortunately there is no pleasant way to express the situation. You are alien. You are no true part of Mhel. There is nothing natural with your dominion.”

“Well, of course not.”

“We burrowed deep beneath the Tumult Sands, in caves that were too small for dragons. We drank charnel water, and ate luminous cavern fungi, and suffered as we hid. But by mysterious means, Cterion and Uruunma discovered us. Uruunma burned green trees by the entrance, and filled our cave with a choking smoke. Molau died of it. The rest of us fled out the long passage. Cterion was waiting by the adit. I died under his flames, we all died under his flames.”

So, what do you to say to someone that your parents killed? “Well, my condolences on your death,” I said.

“Oh, think nothing of it,” he said politely. “It was sure to happen sooner or later. Our mhelvul enemies all had plentiful assassins too, and even without them, the risk of infection from my apotheosis was very great. Paingods rarely lasted more than twenty or thirty years.”

“Well, I do wish my parents had managed to arrange a more peaceful conquest,” I said. I hope that was polite.

“Which are your parents?”

“Cterion and Uruunma.”

“Then we are opposite-siblings,” he said. “They gave you life; they gave me death. Hence it is a singular sort of a pleasure — but undeniably a pleasure nonetheless! — to make your acquaintance, after so many centuries.”

“That’s relatives, of a sort, I suppose!” I said, quite politely.

“And tell me of yourself, O dragon,” he said, just as politely.

So I did, for a third of an hour. That was easy enough.

“I am pleased that Mhel endures. Your stewardship — and, I beg of you, please forgive me for the use of that word. Were I able to rewind time a few seconds, I would surely use the word, ’empire’. Your empire seems a calm sort of empire, compared to ours,” said Xolgrohim.

“Oh, there’s still some fighting. Dragon against dragon, constantly. Even occasionally mhelvul against mhelvul until we stop them.”

The dead god considered that briefly. “I am pleased to hear that you have not squashed every last drop of virility from my erstwhile proud and glorious species. But I am given to understand that you, personally, were not involved in much of those events. So, if you will forgive me a unilateral declaration, I would proclaim that you and I are at peace and have no quarrel with each other,” he said.

I spread my ears. “I accept your declaration of non-war. And, in a wholly unrelated aside, I note that will make no attempt to destroy any small and quite fragile sapphire bottles.”

“Excellent! Then let there be a specific friendship between us now!” he said, truthfully.

“A specific one? What do you mean?”

“Well, I am a man of substantial experience. I gather your mating flight is not entirely to your satisfaction? And you have neither true allies nor pure friends anywhere to hand. My master’s destroyer’s son being a friend of sorts, but hardly disinterested. I should be glad to listen, to advise if you wish, to sympathize if you do not. Indeed, I have little else to do. In exchange … perhaps you could leave me in some civilized place on Hove when you depart? Without destroying me, I mean.”

“That should be fine!” I said. I’m sure I can get Osoth to give me the god somehow. Trade him for my virginity when I get the bravery to evict it, maybe.

So we chatted a bit longer, mostly about the other dragons, and then it was time for lunch.

Coda: Scores

[Since several days were omitted, the scores here don’t match the scores on the previous entry. -bb]

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 41 -1 40
Llredh 38 -2 36
Ythac 23 0 23
Greshthanu 30 -1 29
Osoth 18 +1 19
Nrararn 14 0 14
Tultamaan -3 0 -3

My First Kill (Day 26)

Nothing much happened today. Actually it is still early afternoon, and nothing much of interest is going to happen for the rest of the day, or the duodecade, either. So I’m going to sit down and write something that didn’t happen today: the first time I killed anyone on purpose. A mhelvul, specifically. No big surprise; most people I grew up around are mhelvul. (Actually the only people I’ve killed were mhelvul, so far, though I can’t imagine that it’ll stay that way.)

When I was twenty-four, my parents sent me away to Drumet Academy. Incognito — so, wearing a mhelvul shape, and with nobody much supposed to know that I’m me. Drumet isn’t a dragon school. There aren’t any dragon schools on Mhel — there aren’t enough young dragons for there to be any point to a dragon school. We mostly get tutors: mhelvul tutors for things that mhelvul know, and our parents or their friends for dragon things. I can only think of two others who went to schools. Osoth attended Quenhendoom University for, oh, nearly a duodecade I think, studying history and archaeology, and then some off-world necromantic association on and off for another duodecade. Osoth would not wear any shape but his own for any price, though. Chevethna went to Drumet incognito for a few months, but left after Rankotherium punished Ythac for fighting her in a way that he, Rankotherium, didn’t like.

No, three. Arilash attended some academy or other, not incognito, but got into so many scandals so quickly that her parents took her out in a hurry. Nobody would tell me the details.

Drumet is a school for adolescent girl mhelvul of middle and upper castes. So they were either a lot younger than me, or considerably older, depending on how you want to count things. Cterion made sure I mostly thought of them as older.

I was going to pretend to be an adolescent mhelvul of the middle or upper castes myself. Everyone thought this was a good idea. Uruunma thought it would give me an appreciation for small people. Cterion thought it would be excellent practice for my child’s magic (which was potent but slapdash) and my cunning in general (which was just plain slapdash). I thought it would be a lot of fun, and my first chance to do anything much on my own.

Drumet is across the Vorey Sea from home. It’s a nice two-hour flight. I had to be sneaky though. Uruunma taught me the Esrret-Sky-Painted, so I could fly across the sea without any mhelvul noticing. I would usually land in a cove on the beach next to Drumet’s grounds, in the water so I didn’t leave any footprints. Then I’d turn into a seagull and fly around on Drumet’s campus until I found somewhere nobody was watching. (And if you’re wondering why I didn’t fly across the Vorey Sea as a seagull in the first place — once I tried it. I gave up and turned back to myself after five hours, and I wasn’t even halfway to Drumet.)

Then I’d turn into an adolescent mhelvul girl. That was good practice, right there. Turning into a seagull is easy. Seagulls don’t wear any clothes. Drumet Academy girls wear a very modest and dignified orange uniform with green epaulettes, and a small round green hat with an orange pompom, and a Drumet Academy insignia on the chest, and it all has to be right or someone will notice.

Also, seagulls can look different from time to time and nobody much cares. But if a Drumet Academy schoolgirl has greenish tusks one week and bluish the next, everyone will notice. Ordinarily, of course, Drumet girls aren’t allowed to use tusk-dye. The headmaster and a few teachers had been told what I was, and they weren’t about to try to punish me. But the students would guess that something was suspicious.

Of course all the girls knew that something was suspicious. They were all from Pdernuz or nearby, and they all knew each others’ families and clans and history. I didn’t really feel like trying to make up a story about where I came from and whose daughter I was. I was sure to get caught in a lie, and that’s embarrassing. So I just refused to say anything about myself.

I did use my own first name though. Arilash or Ythac would have had to use pseudonyms, because no small people on Mhel have names like that. But my name is just a common mhelvul name which my parents liked. And they were tired of working to find impressive names for their dragonets who kept dying from the Great Separation, so they just gave me a mhelvul name. I have a fancy family name that you can’t mistake for a mhelvul name (Jyothky Tṧŝura-Nwaŏ Meragathium) for special occasions. This wasn’t a special occasion though. It was only small people.

Ink

The first day I was there, Headmistress Inth brought me into class, and said “Students, this is your new classmate Jyothky. Please show her absolutely the best that Drumet Academy has to offer. Miss Jyothky, I hope you will enjoy your time at Drumet, and if there is anything that needs improvement, please do not hesitate to call upon me.” She smelled utterly terrified. Of course, mhelvul tongues are barely worth being called tongues … actually, I think they smell through their noses. In either case, they’d be hard-pressed to smell a live cat from across the classroom, much less someone’s fear.

I smiled at everyone — thirty students in the class, and a teacher, and a room-servant. They stared at me the way I’d stare at a bracelet I was considering buying. I shrugged, and sat down at the end of the bench in the second row, where there was some space. I didn’t wobble a bit, even though I had only half as many feet as usual. I had been practicing walking as a biped. For years, on and off.

The subject of the day was pairs of linear equations: 8x+3y = 14; 3x+8y = 19 sorts of things. The teacher called the students up one at a time, going across the first row, across the second — and skipping me. Which I thought was quite unfair, at the time. In algebra, of all things, small people may contend evenly with dragons. In retrospect, I think she was afraid of what might happen if I got the problem wrong and wanted to learn my temper. Which is sweet!

After the morning’s classes — algebra, then history, then comparative dancing — was a break for lunch. The teacher sat down behind her curtain. The room-servant brought out small tables, white napkins with the school’s insignia on them, and bowls of water with a dash of cheap rose perfume. The hall-servants came in bearing baskets of grilled root vegetables and egg pies, and served them out with quiet politeness.

The girl next to me said, “Hallo. I’m Bdresia, daughter of Thunes and Hascrinet of Clan Prelret, from the Herringray district of Pdernuz. And that is Gunthet, daughter of Sdecca and Carnaret of Clan Prelret, also from Herringray.”

I smiled. “Good to meet you both! I’m Jyothky.”

She looked at me expectantly, and the dozen closest girls as well.

“Well,” Bdresia said after a bit. “Will you tell me the rest of it?”

“Nope!” I said.

“Well, how are we supposed to know your caste and status, then?” asked another girl.

“If Headmistress Inth didn’t have anything to say about it, I don’t suppose I should either,” I said.

The teacher rushed out from behind the curtain, quite stinking of her panic. “Oh, girls, girls, girls! You mustn’t pester your new classmate like that!”

The girls looked more than a little perplexed, and they left off trying to chat with me altogether. Which was fine with me; I didn’t know what to say to them. I nibbled egg pies and listened them discuss matters of great importance: possible marriage contracts, clan politics, geometry, raising ornamental trout, and high-quality fabric.

After lunch, the teacher left for the washroom for a moment. Someone — Idrut, her name was — halfway across the third row threw an inkwell at me.

Well, I had these odd floppy soft mhelvul-style hands on the ends of my arms, and all the kineception and aeroception and speed of a clumsy dragonet slightly hampered by being in the wrong body. So I caught the inkwell with one of them, with, according to all witnesses, consummate grace and skill. It was an open inkwell, and I got a lot of blue-black spots all over my uniform and face. All the other girls laughed.

I had no idea what the etiquette of the situation was. It wasn’t an attack really, so I wasn’t obliged to kill Idrut. But it seemed to call for some kind of response. I had no idea what.

While I was standing there with a dripping inkwell in my hand looking fearsomely stupid, the teacher returned in a rush. “Oh, no! Girls, what has happened here?”

“Oh, not so much,” I answered her. “I had asked Idrut for an inkwell, is all. It splashed a bit.” All the girls laughed some more.

The teacher rushed me to the washroom. (I don’t like mhelvul washrooms a bit; they stink horribly. Even mhelvul sometimes can smell them.) She scrubbed at the ink on my face and clothes, which didn’t help all that much. She apologied and babbled and promised that Idrut would be punished for ruining my uniform. So I turned into a parrot, then back into a mhelvul schoolgirl with a clean uniform.

I kept the spots on my face. Well, sort of. I rearranged them into triangles, in a regular sort of pattern, with the biggest spots in the middle. I kept those spots for my whole time at school.

The teacher begged and pleaded that she accept Idrut’s coming whipping as sufficient. I told her not to whip the girl. The teacher asked me to add to Idrut’s punishment until I was satisfied. After I told her three or four more times that I was satisfied already, she rather nervously decided to believe me. She was very cruel to Idrut whenever she thought I was paying attention, after that.

The girls called me “Spotty” from then on. They never had any good idea how to treat me. I mostly avoided situations where caste made a big difference, and never pressed for status, and the real mhelvul mostly figured out not to press me for status either. I wasn’t going to get favors in any case, which top-caste girls sometimes demanded from bottom-caste ones. (That’s an euphemism. It starts with the one girl helping the other take her clothes off, and gets disgusting from there.) Twice or thrice a top-caste girl made as if to demand it of me, but a flick of my hukuchô scared her off. (The astral bits of our body don’t shapechange, so, yes, I had my regular hukuchô even if I looked like a mhelvul to material eyes.) Lacking a clan, I didn’t have any clan chants to perform in the pagents, so I just sat that part out and shrugged if anyone asked me. At dinnertime, I stayed indistinctly around Bdresia and Gunthet and their artisan-class cohort, the lowest at Drumet Academy. Nobody challenged my right to eat with them instead of after them, and I didn’t need to press my caste rights to eat earlier.

(I was hungry a lot though. (I can tell that, by the way. It’s not exactly feeling. Also I get more cross and find things more annoying when I’m hungry. That’s not really very reliable, so I sometimes use analysis spells to know for sure. (Oh, and food tastes better when I’m hungry, but it tastes pretty good all the time so that’s not very reliable either.)) Each session was five days long, and then we went home for three days. The refectory set a generous table at dinnertime, and again at midnight. I filled my plate as full as I could, and it was a running joke with my schoolmates about how much I ate. But a plateful is only a small mouthful to me really, barely a snack. Even if it’s dozens of mouthfuls with the mouth I had then. By the time I got home, I usually would eat a whole cow and never mind cooking it if it’s not already cooked.)

And that’s how two years and more went. Six or seven girls did figure out what I was. Three of them at once, when I forgot which side of my face had the spots on it and shapeshifted it from one side to the other right in front of them. The others were clever. Everyone knew that I was very strong, but Verimet realized that I was impossibly strong for a mhelvul, for one discovery. They all kept quiet about it, until later, being sensible girls. Well, maybe some weren’t so sensible — I don’t think I was — but they weren’t so reckless as to annoy a dragon.

Gym Class

Every day, in the middle of the afternoon, our class was herded into Dordford Gymnasium for some exercise. Dordford Gymnasium was a very big and very new building. Its big central room had four tall wooden columns carved with the faces of the now-dead mhelvul gods governing health and physical activity. (Well, I think really they were some of the earliest gods, and they demanded lots of hard labor from their subjects, but they got mythologized.) The gym teachers of Drumet spent their nights coming up with odder and odder games for us to play, which they swore were traditional mhelvul recreations. (I checked on some of them later. They really were traditional mhelvul recreations.)

Ghu-Mung-Ghu is a sport in which two teams of girls shove a small and very heavy wagon around, trying to get it into each others’ goal while the other team tries to deflect it by tossing small things under the wheels. The wagon is laden with sacks of grain if one is being traditional, or piles of protective gear and stone weights from other gym classes if it is loaded by a practical sort of gym teacher. Teams were picked in caste order, of course. I was the first of the artisan caste to be picked, of course.

Well, having one strong person on your team is all very well when it’s your turn to push the cart, but there’s some strategy too, and our highest-caste team captain was not nearly as good at strategy as theirs. Our team was losing, four to two. I pushed the cart very, very hard. The other team threw a rag under the wheel to turn it and slam it into one of the columns, the one for the god Mangu-Pdenru, whose domain is the strength of the back, and whom I swear I did not theocept as being a single bit real. Which they had done a dozen times before in that game.

The base of the column slipped out of its moorings and slid across the floor, conveniently towards the other team’s goal. The whole ceiling suddenly roared to dangersense, as intense as anything I had ever perceived. A quick tenasensitive glance pointed out that the whole building was now one large structural flaw.

It no longer seemed like a good place to be in a soft, small mhelvul body. So I got my own body back.

The girls and gym teacher promptly started screaming. I never did ask whether they were more scared of me or the the collapsing building. In any case, it didn’t seem like a very good place for them to be in soft, small mhelvul bodies either. I couldn’t do much about that, exactly. So I wingscooped and tailscooped as many of them under my belly as I could reach. If I favored my teammates, it is simply because they were closer, I promise.

And then the roof fell in. It seemed almost elegant, first the part where the column had stood, then the four huge beams connected to that, and then the outer quarters of the roof, one after the other. One of the beams caught me across the back, but of course I couldn’t feel it and didn’t notice until later.

After the whole roof had fallen, and some of the walls too, the mhelvul kept screaming. I’m not sure why. Dragons usually get very calm and quick in emergencies, which seems much more practical than yelping and panicking. I tilted a bit and dumped the bits of roof off my back. That part worked fine.

Then, I intended to go try to dig out the girls I hadn’t got under me. It was a bit of a challenge. There were small people all around, some of them under me and some of them hidden under piles of ex-roof. It wouldn’t do to step on someone I was trying to rescue. It certainly wouldn’t do to step on someone I already had rescued, and they were running all about and making that part harder. I mostly stood still and burrowed in the ruins with my muzzle, and picked out Verimet and two other girls, and the gym teacher. That’s all that was in reach.

I found a clear spot to step, and discovered that my hind legs would rather collapse than do what I wanted them to. I looked at them with sight and tenasense, but they didn’t seem to be much hurt. I decided to ignore them. I dragged myself forward with my forelegs to dig out the last five girls, three of them still living. Gunthet was dead, which annoyed me.

I still couldn’t move my hind legs or tail, though. It must have been two dozen heartbeats before I realized that, though my legs were fine, my back was broken. I knew a fine, simple spell for taking care of that. Unfortunately, it needs to be cast rather soon after the injury happens: one heartbeat or two, not dozens. I cast it anyways, but it didn’t do very much good.

The next hour or so was very, very confusing. Some small people thought I was attacking Drumet Academy. Lots of them tried to run away, which at least meant I didn’t need to deal with them. Headmistress Inth and some of the teachers thought that I had gotten upset, and ran out to try to calm me down and salvage what they could of the situation. Since I was very upset now that the actual emergency was over, the conversation didn’t go terribly well.

“Mighty Jyothky, we beg to know who has wronged you, so that we may torture them in your sight to appease your wrath!” declaimed the headmistress, in a shaky version of her lecturing voice.

“My back, I think,” I said. I wasn’t paying attention to her. I was thinking that my parents could probably heal me with better spells, if they could get there in time. I could fly home in two hours, except not without the back half of my body. The Academy could send a message, but it would take a few days to get there by boat, and that would never do at all. I didn’t (and don’t) have any long-range magic or anything. I was feeling a bit at a loss.

Inth didn’t quite see how my answer applied to her question, so she tried again. She declaimed, “Oh, tell us whom we must punish! Let us absolve our community of its crimes against you, even if half of us must die!”

“Rankotherium!” I shouted. That redoubtable beast was the ruler of Pdernuz, and a mighty wizard, and a casual friend of my parents. Surely the Academy could get a message to him quickly.

“Rankotherium…?” whispered Inth, too scared to declaim anymore. “We offer you any and all mhelvul for your vengeance, but we cannot offer you Rankotherium…”

“I don’t want vengeance. I want Rankotherium,” I said. I thought it made perfect sense.

Inth simply started crying, though. Much later, she explained to me that she thought I was dying, and that I wanted Rankotherium to avenge me. My parents could only take a limited vengeance on Rankotherium’s territory; too much and they would offend Rankotherium. But Rankotherium could do whatever he wanted on his own territory, and Inth thought I wanted that sort of revenge.

Verimet waved her hands from where I had put her when I dug her out. “Jyothky isn’t angry, I don’t think.” She somehow managed to translate from clear, coherent Pdeshlantine as spoken by a somewhat distracted dragon to clear, coherent Pdeshlantine as spoken by a somewhat distraught headmistress. And within a dozen minutes we had the riding instructor on the Academy’s fastest horse, galloping off to Rankotherium’s castle.

Rankotherium came flying in a hurry when he heard. He couldn’t completely heal me — it was too late for that — but he healed enough so that I could be moved without getting worse. He sent his son Ythac to tell my parents, who came flying over in their own hurry. They healed me a bit more, using the slow spells rather than the battle ones, but I still had to spend the next two years or so convalescing, because the slow spells are slow.

Rankotherium invited me to convalesce for some time in his castle. His official reason was that he could teach me better apotropaic spells so that the next time the roof fell on me it wouldn’t hurt much. And he did that — he taught me the Hoplonton, and some good child-magic style healing spells, either of which would have saved me in that situation, and quite a bit else, over the next year or so.

His real reason, though, was that I could get to know Ythac before the actual mating flight. Parents of young drakes are always trying to find an edge to getting their sons married. And what better edge than having your son have a year or more to befriend one of his fiancées?

That worked, too. Ythac is probably my closest friend. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to marry him. But it doesn’t mean I won’t, either.

The Investigation

But there was the question of why the building had fallen on us. The natural assumption was that I had turned into a dragon and knocked it down. Which is silly. If I were going to kill some mhelvul, I wouldn’t knock a building on them, I’d just breathe on them, or bite them, or claw them. Or sit on them. Plus everyone who was there saw the pillar start to fall before I turned into a dragon.

I asked to be the truthforcer at the trial of whoever had done it to me. Vengeance for my back, and Gunthet, and my favorite mhelvul academy.

Rankotherium and Cterion appointed me the sentence-maker and executioner as well. Dragonets usually don’t do that — whether it’s “don’t have to” or “don’t get to” I am unclear on. But if I was going to get my vengeance, they would give it to me in in full measure. They thought it would be educational.

The mhelvul were particularly interested. There was a rumor that it was some rebel against our rule, taking an opportunity to try to kill a young and relatively unprotected dragonet. If this had been true, they would have needed to give us the culprits quickly, or face an extravagant reprisal. That happens every dozen years or two, and sensible mhelvul make sure that it is taken care of quickly and efficiently.

It turned out not to be nearly so personal.

The gymnasium was a new building, less than a dozen years old. The Prelret Construction Company had built it.

They hadn’t done a very good job.

They’d used cheap materials when the Academy had paid for expensive ones, and hired unskilled workers instead of experts, and taken shortcuts. The columns, for example, weren’t dug into the ground. They were set on top of the floorboards. Which probably would have been fine if we hadn’t kept slamming carts into them. I certainly sped up the collapse, pushing carts harder than a team of mhelvul girls could have done. (I refuse to accept any guilt for that.) But even without me it probably would have happened in a few dozen years. If nothing else wrecked the building earlier.

But they’d done the same thing everywhere. The column was grey pine rather than oak. The mortar they used on the stonework didn’t have very much pozzolana in it, and it was still soft in spots. The plumbing leaked — all the girls knew about that. Three walls were double walls but without any insulation between them, and the fourth was just a single wall. And so on.

It wasn’t dragons vs. mhelvul, when that news came out. It was everyone vs. the Prelret Construction Company. Owned by Bdresia’s parents Thunes and Hascrinet.

The Trial

Six dragons: me, Cterion, Uruunma, Rankotherium, Ythac, and Rankotherium’s somewhat estranged wife Dessvaria. Some six hundred mhelvul, starting with the families of the high-caste mhelvul whose daughters had been in the gymnasium when it collapsed, and on from there. Plus the impresario, the crime-speaker, the baliffs, the attorneys, and the other judicial staff, except that the judgment-maker was Rankotherium and I’ve already listed him. To say nothing of the thirteen executives and owners of the Prelret Construction Company. No courtroom in Pdernuz could hold all of us. Unless we shapeshifted smaller, but that would have made the occasion less impressive. So we took over an amphitheatre in Saint of Hermundro Park.

The crime-speaker was Headmistress Inth. She declaimed furiously at the builders, ending in a thunderous crescendo. “You have worked frauds upon us. You have built a deadly school for us. You have assaulted us by means of poor construction. You have injured us by means of poor construction. You have killed us by means of poor construction. And you have tried to kill a dragon by means of poor construction. And for these heinous crimes you must pay in full, so that the ghosts of our dead students can sleep, and so that no builder ever again thinks he can make such frauds as you have made.”

She’s rather brave when she’s got six dragons backing her up, is Headmistress Inth.

The truthforcing was actually rather tedious. The impresario would point his bell-covered crook at one of the attorneys. The attorney would ask a question, like “Did you have the central columns of the gymnasium seated properly in the deep soil and properly restrained by proper moorings?”. The builder being interrogated would say “No”. I would keep my veriception open, in case the builder was lying, which he wasn’t. Then the attorney would ask another question, like “And is there some proper and safe construction technique that you used in place of that?” and the builder would say “No,” and I would see if he was lying, which he wasn’t. The builders mostly didn’t lie. They knew that they were pretty much doomed in any case, and they didn’t want to annoy the sentence-maker by lying.

Instead, they annoyed her by being boring. I was ready to make the sentence after a third of an hour. The judgment-maker — Rankotherium — wasn’t ready to make the judgment that fast though. He was quite proud that Pdernuz was ruled by laws as much as by dragons. His subjects thought that he was quite fair, and that made them better subjects. So we had to hear all thirteen builders answer the same questions the same way.

Rankotherium even let the builders try to defend themselves. “There is no doubt or disagreement that you have committed the wickednesses of which you are accused. But is there any reason why we might incline to mercy?”

The proper answer is “No” and most of them said that. A humble submission to the forces of Justice is considered more sympathetic than any possible appeal for mercy. But that’s when Justice is mhelvul. And the assault on me made it worse for the builders. The punishment for trying to kill a dragon is death: death of the perpetrator, and his family, and his closest friends.

“Well, yes,” said Hascrinet. “I knew we was working cheap. We’re guilty as anything of all the fraud charges. But we thought it was good enough. I sent my own daughters there to school. Bdresia was in that gym when it fell over. We didn’t mean no harm by it, and that’s a fact too, Miss Truthforcer.” Which it was.

And the proper punishment for his crime would mean killing Bdresia too. Which I didn’t want because (1) she had been kind of a friend when she thought I was mhelvul, and (2) I had saved her life, and it’s embarrassing to kill someone you’ve saved.

Rankotherium used some grownup spell or other to talk quietly to me. «And we have to take some of the blame for that, Jyothky.»

«Me knocking the column over? I am not taking blame for it! Besides, it would have fallen over sooner or later anyways!»

«Not you. Dragons as a whole. We have denied the mhelvul all knowledge of any but the simplest science. They barely know concepts of structural strength and equilibrium of forces. And we’d certainly never let them go so far as to measure them.»

«I don’t know them either,» I pointed out. (This was before I spent a long time studying them, with Rankotherium.)

«Well, you should, and a good deal more besides. They’re very useful when you build a building that won’t fall down. We don’t let the mhelvul have any science. We’ve seen what other creatures can do with it. But that means they can’t use it for worthwhile things. Like architecture,» he said, and broke the quiet chat spell.

Then there was another third of an hour of annoying questions and discussions. Finally I was allowed to make the sentence. “There’s no question about the crime, no question about your guilt, and no question about what the punishment is. For your lesser crimes, everything you own shall be given to Drumet Academy. For your greater crime, you, your families, and your closest friends shall die.” All very standard.

There wasn’t a lot of surprise about that. I looked at Bdresia, who had been crying quietly in her hobbles for most of the trial. She stared back at me with thick darkness in her eyes. I can’t blame her, since I’d just condemned her to death.

I added, “However, if making a lethal gymnasium counts as a murderous attack on me, then surely it counts as a murderous attack on everyone in it. So you’ve tried to kill your daughters, Hascrinet. It’s not punishment for me to kill someone you’ve tried to kill. So they’ll live, to spite you.”

Bdresia wasn’t expecting that. She didn’t stop crying, though.

Hascrinet tried to thank me for my mercy, the fool. I yelled at him, “It’s not mercy. It’s extra revenge.” It sounded petulant and fatuous to me. I’m sure everyone in the stadium knew I was making up a reason to save a friend. Even the small people. The dragons knew my lie like a vericeptive fart in the face, but they didn’t call me on it.

Execution

The actual execution was pretty straightforward. The mhelvul had already collected all the people to be executed. There was a bit of shuffling, as Bdresia and her sister, and two other builder’s daughters who had gone to Drumet Academy, were set free. Ythac very nicely took them over to Headmistress Inth, since I still couldn’t walk. Not that I wanted to say anything to them just then.

Fresh mhelvul blood is very thick, and tastes somewhat like sulpherated chocolate, more than most of Mhel’s animals. Mhelvul bones are somewhat fibrous, and sometimes get stuck around your fangs, just like most other of Mhel’s animals. And if a mhelvul tries to flee, one quick little child-sized firebreath will remind them that they can, in the end, choose whether to die with dignity, or to be craven and make their surviving daughters’ lives just that much worse.

Two Years and More

I stayed with Rankotherium and Ythac for over a year. My parents flew in every week or so. They and Rankotherium became good friends, which was a nice bit of extra prestige for them. Ythac and I became good friends too, which was what Rankotherium wanted. I read every one of Rankotherium’s books from other worlds, and learned all about science that way.

Some girls from Drumet came to visit once, as an offical sort of embassy. They thanked me for saving their lives, and for punishing the builders. Some of them were sincere about that last to the point of bloodthirstiness. Verimet had huge scars and a crushed fang and every reason to be angry. Some of them were barely able to talk to me. I can’t blame Bdresia for that. I could barely talk to her. It was a hideously awkward visit, and I sent Headmistress Inth a letter asking that her charges not be subjected to that again. By which I meant that I wouldn’t be.

After the year, or so, I flew home. With an escort of four dragons to levitate me if I couldn’t fly all the way. Which I couldn’t, then.

It was almost two years before I was pretty much healed.

And I really haven’t recovered yet completely. I’m much smaller than I would be if I hadn’t gotten hurt. And it probably is why my first egg was delayed so long.

It’s also why I’m so fussy about wearing apotropaic spells all the time. That’s good, right?

Today

And nothing interesting has happened today, and I am tired of writing.

Coda: Scores

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 38 0 38
Llredh 36 0 36
Ythac 27 0 27
Greshthanu 28 0 28
Osoth 17 0 17
Nrararn 15 0 15
Tultamaan -8 0 -8

Actually, I don’t like any of them today. Two dozen points off for everyone!

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 38 -24 14
Llredh 36 -24 12
Ythac 27 -24 3
Greshthanu 28 -24 4
Osoth 17 -24 -7
Nrararn 15 -24 -9
Tultamaan -8 -24 -32

Artillery Dance (Day 31)

We had spent the last several days in the desert. I was bored.

I had talked Nrararn into teaching me some basic grownup-style sky magic. (Talking a drake into doing something on a mating flight isn’t at all hard. He’s here to try to get my attention.) It started with soaring exercises to become one with the sky. Nrararn immediately got four assorted challenges from four assorted other drakes, and didn’t wind up having time to teach me anything else that day or the next. I was bored.

The drakes had done all the hunting. I was bored.

The drakes aren’t very good cooks, either. For one thing, Osoth had learned fire breath before he became a necromancer and got his exotic new breath weapon of graveyard dust. We learned this when he tried to roast a dead pointy desert herbivore and picked the wrong (dusty) breath at first. That wasn’t boring. The other drakes ganged up on him and made him eat the whole poisoned thing. Then they had to fly off in a hurry and be the first one to collect something to eat and offer it to Arilash. (I suppose to me too, but they only said Arilash, which I suppose is her advantage for twining with them all the time and me not.) This meant that we ended up with three pointy desert herbivores, one lumpy desert herbivore, and a bunch of obviously domesticated and very incompetant birds. I gorged on raw meat and slept half the night. Which was important. Arilash had been twining noisily with everyone but Tultamaan and me. It had been hard to sleep through that.

So about noontime, Osoth and Greshthanu were doing one of the tedious little contests that the drakes think will make us choose them. Osoth was raising masses of assorted quadruped skeletons and sending them at Greshthanu. Greshthanu was seeing if he could kill them faster than Osoth could raise them. The answer, of course, was that Greshthanu was ahead in terms of the challenge. But Osoth was secretly making a huge army of skeletal birds concealed behind himself, and was surely going to throw them all at Greshthanu as soon as the challenge was over. Osoth is a very devious necromancer.

I would think it was all very clever and interesting and important if I hadn’t had several days of variations on that theme. Am I supposed to put up with twelve years of this?

So when the skeletal birds attacked a very startled Greshthanu, I flew off the other way, towards the big Hove city.

The Road To Ghemel

I didn’t get to Ghemel immediately. We were some two-thirds of an hour’s flight from it. So I flew over the jaggy craggy mountains. I flew over the big scrubby desert mostly full of big browsing mammals, and hovens herding them who were probably just starting to get unhappy with the drakes. They looked rather unhappy about me flying overhead.

The countryside was rather in ruins. Roads and fields had small craters in them, and the occasional wrecked car or truck or tractor. The first car delayed me for a third of an hour: I landed and stared at it a long time. I couldn’t figure out how it worked. I’d studied a reasonable amount of science, but actually getting confronted with some dirty oily ruined science wasn’t the same as reading about it. I was pretty sure that the bullet holes shouldn’t actually have been there, though. All I really learned was that my fiancés hadn’t done it. They don’t use bullets.

And there were some small villages. Many buildings had walls scarred by bullets or rays. Some were broken or burnt or flung asunder, and abandoned. There were plenty of hovens around, working in the fields, tending herds of assorted mammals, managing smaller herds of children, sitting in the shade drinking tea from small glass cups, and standing guard with guns. As I flew overhead, they pointed the guns at me. Some of them shot at me. Their guns threw lots of bullets rather fast, but they fell quite short of me. Sometimes they scared herd animals. In a rather Zṥràsḫiọ źó Hrašśiǒ spirit, I decided that they were saluting me rather than attacking me, so I didn’t have to stop and kill them.

( Zṥràsḫiọ źó Hrašśiǒ might be translated as “politeness is lightness.” It’s about using polite fictions to relieve the heaviness of draconic honor, custom, and law. It’s not completely dignified, and definitely not completely honorable, but I don’t think anyone will complain.)

Some dragons were trying to find me by grown-up magic. I didn’t let them.

The devastation seemed worse as I got closer to Ghemel. It wasn’t really. The countryside was getting more crowded. The small villages gave way to towns, and then to cities. Hove is far more crowded than Mhelvul. The small subsidiary cities were bigger than Pdernuz. They were in far worse shape too, or at least their injuries were more dramatic. Here a fire had eaten two or three blocks. There, an explosion had scored a street — recently, for it smelled of blood and oily flame and torn iron no more than two days old. Small trucks of soldiers roamed the streets, menacing terrified un-uniformed hovens with guns. Some soldiers shot at me as I flew overhead. Their weapons were better than the villagers’, and a few bullets reached me. I healed myself a bit, and put on the Ulthana’s Targe and the Hoplonton. I was feeling somewhere between lazy and irresponsible, so I decided that was another salute.

I’m sure I’m going to regret that later. But we’re not going to conquer Hove, after all. So teaching the hovens proper manners and terrors will be someone else’s job. Though I imagine that the drakes will get a good start on terrifying them, at least.

Ghemel

Ghemel is a huge city. It used to be huger, and beautiful. It still is beautiful in spots. It’s also blown up in spots. And covered with garbage. I didn’t want to land. The artillery wasn’t enough to drive me off, but the stench was. I kept breathing little gouts of fire to try to burn my tongue clean, but it didn’t help for long.

Ghemel is a river town. There’s a huge stinking river more or less cutting it in half, and a smaller but still rather big and rather smelly river cutting one half in half. One quarter looks pretty rich. The other parts are gigantic slums. We didn’t let mhelvul make slums like that on Mhel. But nobody has civilized Hove yet — that’s why we picked Hove in the first place.

The nice quarter had a big palace in it, surrounded by all sorts of very small fortifications. I’m used to massive stoneworks. My parents’ castle isn’t very big by Mhelvul standards, and it’s got walls eight feet thick and forty feet high. That’s no good against dragons. My parents just flew over it and killed some mhelvul and a god or two, and that was that.

The hovens’ fortifications were even punier. They had big rolls of wire. They had tall wire fences that I could have walked through without any effort. They had walls, maybe twelve feet tall, but they were just thin slabs of some powdery grey stone. They were pretty tough as thin slabs of powdery stone go, but one rock from a catapult would have knocked them over.

About that point, Ythac wrote words on my mind from afar. «Jyothky, what happened to you?»

«I got bored of watching Osoth outwit Greshthanu. So I flew off to be a tourist,» I wrote back.

«Are you all right?»

«I will shred your liver if you ask me that again,» I wrote, quite reasonably.

«I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, could you make sure you’re not injured?», he wrote.

That was probably a good idea, since hovens had been shooting at me for an hour. «Not a scratch. I’m wearing your father’s favorite defensive spells,» I wrote back.

«Good, good. One minute…» he wrote, and then a minute later, «Very well. Three officially-lovestruck drakes are placated.»

«I am officially glad to hear that,» I wrote. «I’ll be back by nightfall.»

«By dinnertime!» he wrote.

«Well, yes.» He knows me pretty well.

«What’s it like? I haven’t gone very far that way yet,» he asked.

«Big and stinky, damaged all over, and very poorly defended.» I described the puny stone walls around the rich areas, since I had just been staring at them.

«You should throw a rock at them and show them how weak their fortifications are!»

«I don’t want to land, Ythac. It’s that smelly.»

«Actually, I think that they’re not worried about massive assaults by heavily-armed warriors from another country. It sounds like they’re mostly trying to keep their own countryhovens out. I’ll bet that that wire is sharp and poisoned, or run through with lightning, or something,» Ythac wrote.

«I’ll check …» I answered, and peered around with dangersense. «No poison or lightning, but it’s very sharp.»

«Speaking of poison and lightning, Osoth and Nrararn are flying out there to protect you.» he warned me.

«From what?» I asked.

«Each other, I suppose.»

«How about from the artillery barrage?» The hovens had given up with the little guns. A dozen boxy trucks were coming, with gun muzzles the length of my neck, and the soldiers were getting out any number of other smaller guns. Well, “smaller” mostly meaning “bigger than one hoven could carry.”

«Artillery barrage? Are you serious? I’m going to fly out there to protect you!»

«Sure, if you want. I’m going to have to protect Osoth and Nrararn, though. They don’t have good armor spells. You can be a very very drake drake and take that as scoring some points with me.» Some soldiers started shooting tiny little ray guns at me. I don’t think they would have injured a hoven, even, but they were quite bright. I flew in circles, and they tried to keep the rays on me.

«I think I’ll score more points by staying away,» he answered.

«I think Osoth and Nrararn would too. If you really want some points from me, tell them.»

«I can’t. Only you and Llredh have given me permission for the Horizonal Quill

The soldiers started shooting their artillery at me. I circled around a bit, flying near the paths that their shells would take. «Oh, this is fun!» I told Ythac.

«You and your fun! Do you have a spell to tell you if you do get hurt?»

«No.» I cast one. «Now yes.»

«OK, I claim some fiancé points. Before you and Arilash shit on the points and do whatever you want.»

The tiny bright ray guns were back on my chest, and the cannons fired their second barrage. I dived a bit, spread my wings, swooped this way, swooped that way, trying to fly a circle around each shell’s path before they all hit the ground. I only missed one. «Ooh, this is fun!» It would probably be more fun if I could feel the rush of wind on my wings, but vision and kineception and dangersense made it pretty exciting anyways.

«It sounds it! Can I come out?»

«Sure. There’s Osoth and Nrararn now, riding a wizard-wind.» I thought that Nrararn must be actually worried if he was willing to bring another drake along.

«Well. Maybe next time.»

The next barrage included a peppering of little mortars and other whatnots. Some of the shells exploded in the air next to me, in tight little yips of mild danger. There were too many of them to circle. So I made up a new dance move, flying right under the shells and letting them explode on my back if they felt so inclined, and spatter on the Ulthana’s Targe.

Osoth and Nrararn flew up frantically, suitably fretful. “Jyothky! What, what is this? Why do you court danger and destruction under the guns of the hovens? You should stay home and court the drakes who desire you!” Guess which one that was.

“Come dance with me!” I hooted back at them.

Osoth’s look of offended dignity was worth all the earlier boredom. He circled up very high. Nrararn laughed, and flew over to me. He told his sylphs to whisper to me of the flight of the projectiles. That’s much more accurate and helpful than relying on vision and kineception, especially when there are so many of them.

And then Nrararn and I danced and play-fought through the next four barrages. We chased each other up and down the parabolas of heavy shells, pulling up into the sky as the shells crashed into this or that hoven neighborhood. (Which explains how the city is so demolished, if they always fight like this.) We circled each other in the paths of the silly little ray guns.

Then I play-snapped at his wing just as he was dodging several shells, and he missed, and one of them got through his the Small Wall (which isn’t much good against physical attacks anyways) and sort of wrecked his left rear wing. A great cheer went up from the watching hovens.

Well, some air spirits and I grabbed him and towed him up high high high! He healed himself frantically with the Put-Together-Now — he’s pretty good with it. Osoth took care to kill the soldiers who had shot that gun with his graveyard dust breath.

Five miles up, I tried to apologize. “I’m very sorry! I don’t want to hurt your wing when it’s not on purpose!”

“Oh, no problem, no problem.” He looked a bit shaky though, but he tried to be cheerful. “It’s all part of the testing, isn’t it? If the artillery could touch me without help from a dragon, then I should be ashamed.”

It’s so nice to hear him bragging properly. To say nothing of dancing nicely with me. And rushing off to rescue me. I wasn’t exactly eager to mate. (I’ve never been eager to mate in my life. As far as I know, which isn’t very far.) But I did have a duty to my fiancés — and to myself, really. And everyone’s supposed to enjoy coitus, aren’t they? So it seemed like a good situation to demand my prenuptial rights.

Then I thought of one more way to procrastinate, maybe for a long time.

«Ythac? Would you be horribly offended if I coupled for my first time with someone who isn’t you?» I wrote.

«Go ahead. I’m not expecting much physical affection from you. You know that,» he wrote back. I didn’t know that.

«You’re sure?»

«Jyothky, I am sure. I will bite your left foreleg very hard if you come back a virgin,» he wrote.

So much for procrastinating.

Duty

“Nrararn, have you ever coupled with me yet?” I don’t actually remember what I said to him, and I really don’t want to remind him. It came out as something wrong like that, though.

“Not yet,” said Nrararn, who suddenly looked very hopeful.

“You’ve taken so many lovers that the memory of one blurs into that of another?” asked Osoth. “Could it be that you are Arilash, come disguised as Jyothky?”

I collected a few wits and a few manners. “I mean, will you couple with me now, Nrararn? … Then you, Osoth.”

“I’d be delighted to,” said Nrararn. It’s not like he’s in any position to refuse. But he sounded fairly pleased about it.

“I shall, of course, attend to our defenses whilst the two of you take delights in one another. Then I shall demonstrate to Jyothky of the great value of superior wisdom and deeper perspective,” said Osoth.

At which point I remembered that we were high in the sky, over an alien city, with lots of well-armed soldiers. They probably had flying machines. And telescopes. And light recorders. And mass media.

I am so glad we’re going to leave Hove pretty soon. Preferably without ever meeting any hovens socially. Their main impression of me will be as “The dragon who fornicates in the sky. Badly.”

Because, well, it was pretty awkward. I had been planning a sweet romantic first time. Ythac should have been first, then maybe Greshthanu, then Osoth. After Csirnis showed up, he’d’ve been first, and Llredh in there somewhere too. In a big fat cave. Lying on lots of precious coins. With lots of licking each other first. I can’t feel, but I can smell just fine, so licking should be nice, shouldn’t it?

It’s hard to lick someone very much in the air. I took a few desultory flickers at Nrararn. He tasted very nice about the genital slit. And that is really all the intimate detail I want to write down.

Except that coupling in the air isn’t nearly as easy as it looks from underneath. So I when grabbed him with my tail and we squirmed around a lot in the air, we started by plummeting. But Nrararn caught us with a cute updraft spell. And we squirmed around some more.

Osoth was laughing. “It appears that my esteemed co-fiancé is just as good a lover when he has not actually achieved intromission.”

“This is foreplay, jealous death lizard,” said Nrararn.

“It is? I thought you’d mounted me!” I said.

Nrararn hissed at that, to be sure. I am the most ungracious fiancée ever.

I swatted him in the side, not that it would do much to a dragon wearing the Hoplonton. “Don’t hiss! You know I can’t feel.”

Nrararn obviously could feel the swat, though. He said, “Right that. Well, I’m ready whenever you are.”

I had no idea where either of our bodies exactly were, or not exactly enough for coupling anyways. So I cast a scrying spell. I know that Arilash doesn’t need to do that. Maybe she did the first time. It was rather dizzying, scrying on my own tailbase.

Then he was in me, according to both the scrying spell and the rather self-satisfied grin on his face.

So we writhed around in the air. Nrararn looked fairly well pleased. Osoth looked amused and tolerant. I tried not to look too bored. But it really wasn’t very interesting or fun.

I scried on what was going on with our genitalia. It was mostly squooshy and very biological. Dragons look more elegant from the outside than the inside.

Some minutes later, Nrararn looked distinctly happy. I scried some more, and, yes, he was squirting properly into me.

Osoth gave Nrararn long enough to enjoy that part, and three more seconds besides. Then he thwacked him with his tail. “Sky mage, I do believe that your helpfully elemental skills are the most-appropriate ones for our current situation.”

“What, what?” asked Nrararn, blinking at his rival.

“Seven very large and very fast aircraft are coming towards us. They are armed with missiles of moderate power, and with guidance systems of amazing finesse. One of them has killed two hundred and eighty-four hovens, and their ghosts follow it in a dismal train. Shall I destroy the aircraft with arcane secrets and the hungry spirits of the dead? Or will you turn them aside in some gentler way, and thereby give them less provocation to intrude upon our idyll?”

So Nrararn got out of me and called for a horrible windstorm. Osoth and I mated in the air, which was even more awkward than with Nrararn, and took a fair while longer for technical reasons. Next time I’ll bring a book along.

Oh, that’s ridiculous. This mating flight is twelve years long. I can spare a boring third of an hour, or a whole hour, to be marginally polite to my fiancé.

Anyways, Nrararn provided a sandy tempest, and blew the planes around and away from us. That was fun to watch. I wish I had had time to learn some grownup magic, so I could do that sort of thing myself. Osoth satisfied himself inside me. I did my best to be politely enthusiastic, even if I spent more time watching the sky magic than I did to my necromantic lover. It wasn’t the most interesting part of the day. Better than waiting for the drakes to come back with some food, but not that much better.

But I had a trick against boredom. «OK, I’m not a virgin anymore,» I wrote to Ythac.

«Good for you!» he wrote back. «How do you like it?»

«It feels just as good as having my back broken,» I wrote.

«Oh, sorry to hear that,» he answered. «I was hoping it wouldn’t just be about feeling.»

«No, it’s mostly about feeling. I’d just as soon not bother anymore ’til I’m trying to have children. But that wouldn’t be polite to you and the other drakes.»

«And Arilash. She’s copulating enough for two dragonesses. I don’t think there’s enough time in the day for three though.»

So I scribbled some apologies about how terrible a fiancée I was being. He scribbled some lack of fretting about it. Which passed the time before Osoth’s climax, at least.

When we untwined, Osoth said, “I thank you, O my fiancée. Your embraces are sweeter to me than hervetical vinegar. And a single drop of that rare and exquisite vinegar holds more than three drops of honey.”

Yes, he talks like that. I think he’s making it up about the vinegar though. At least I’ve never heard of it, and I pay attention to food.

And then we flew back.

Getting Noticed

Everyone knew what the boys and I had been up to. We could have gone for a swim so we didn’t smell quite so much like each other, the way that my parents usually do. But (a) Osoth and I have the right opinion of swimming, and (b) unlike any other time that any of us might have been sneaking around indulging ourselves, we are now allowed, encouraged, and even required to do such things.

So Llredh immediately challenged Osoth to a Caramelle. He distinctly amused himself by fighting Osoth very defensively, and only scoring hits on him with his spiky tail. He took a good three minutes to win the fight, and did not let Osoth touch him even once. After which victory, Llredh grinned a big fangy grin at me, and said, “The mating flight, finally you join her. The unhurried dragoness, she you are, but in time you get where you are going.” But he didn’t demand a turn right then, which is good.

Greshthanu, on the other hand, growled, “You finally start? You take the smallest member from one, the middle from the other.” (Yes, the three varieties of male organ do produce different sorts of seed, and they do smell different. And they smell a bit different from drake to drake, too, if what Arilash has come home wearing is any indication.) “Come now and try the full set!”

“Not now, please,” I told him.

“Jyothky, this is not fair! You make everyone wait years and years, then days and days more! Do not be so great a delay beast!”

So I bit him. Just the tip of his wing, so it’s borderline not hideously rude. He flew away in a huff.

Csirnis simply smiled a big barbelly smile at me. Csirnis is a drake with patience. Also, I think, he is Arilash’s favorite. I would happily take him away from her — but not today. I’ve used every scales-weight of courage and daring and manners that I ever had, already.

Osoth and Nrararn were very sweet and deferential. Osoth even got a couple packets of spice from a hoven village or something and sprinkled it on some dead birds for me at dinner. It wasn’t the best food I’ve ever had, but it was the best on Hove so far.

And I wasn’t at all sure how to behave back. Arilash is often seen with her tailtip twined with her consort-of-the-hour’s. I wasn’t feeling that demonstrative. For one thing, I was confusingly sad about not starting with Ythac. I kept thinking in circles: I had offered, he’d said no, and I didn’t expect to have the courage for too much longer.

For another, I didn’t really want to favor one of the two over the other. I should have just put a Y-shaped fork in my tail and held both, but I didn’t think of that until just now.

Tultamaan just looked morose and slithered off into the drakes’ cave.

That evening, when we were alone, Arilash grinned a big grin at me. “Well, how was it?”

“Not as good as for you, I guess,” I said. “Judging…”

“I’m not trying to have a dominance contest just now, Jyothky,” she said. “I’m just trying to congratulate you. If you want that.”

So I stole a trick from Tultamaan and mumbled “Right. Thanks.” and looked morose and slithered off into the corner of the cave. I didn’t want to talk to her about it.

Fortunately I am not without resources. I wanted to talk to Xolgrohim, who is the wrong species and too dead to be after my claspers himself. Sneaking into the drakes’ cave sounded like utter doom. I’d probably end up either coupling with someone again, or, more likely, insulting someone I like by turning them down.

So I scribbled. «Ythac? Are you awake?»

«Yes. I’m just cheating on you,» he wrote back.

«What?» Arilash was asleep in the dragoness cave, her head under her left wings, her tailtip twisted into a spiral.

«Not like that. I just played a round of tsheriaf with Llredh. We did not keep score. It is outside the mating flight.» Ythac wrote.

«So you’re not upset at me for, well …»

«[I laugh!]» wrote Ythac. «Hardly upset! I am glad for you.»

I was evidently obliged to chew his spikes from afar. «What was your first time with Arilash like? When was it, for that matter?»

«Third day on Hove, out behind Khamrou Ghanirma. It was pretty different than today for you. She knows how to squeeze pleasure out of a drake’s body,» wrote Ythac, risking his status as my best friend.

«I can’t do that!» I whined. «I can’t even begin to do that!»

«Nobody expects you to. It’s not even a good thing. Llredh maybe prefers a dragoness like her, and Csirnis is utterly unflappable, but I’m sure that Osoth and Nrararn find her awfully intimidating. Can you imagine either of them marrying Arilash and trying to keep up with her?»

«No, now that you mention it. How about you?» I asked. Today is my day for being very direct.

«There is absolutely no chance Arilash would choose me,» Ythac wrote definitively.

«Oh? What did you do to her? You’ve always seemed pretty friendly with her.»

«Oh, she’s not upset with me at all, nor I with her. We’d be a terrible couple though. I’d rather marry you than her.»

«Even if she’s a better lover than I am?» I had to ask.

«Even if that. Even if something more than that: even if it’s what my father wants,» he said.

Which is certainly worth something.

I don’t feel any more grown up than I did this morning. Or than last month, before we left. Or than twelve years ago, really.

Coda: Tsheriaf

Tsheriaf is a traditional and exciting dragon game. You take a few turns diving along a cliff face and breathing against it as you dive. You get points for making shapes: wobbly line = 1, straight line = 3, half-circle = 4, full circle = 6, equilateral triangle = 8, five-pointed star = 12, etc. You get to multiply the points some for having them related to your peer’s previous moves. Connecting two figures is ×2. Centering your figure on a point of someone else’s is ×3. Neatly circumscribing or inscribing is ×4. Oh, and you get some extra points for setting things up for your opponent, like leaving a point of one figure in the center of another one, so your opponent could potentially get the centering and circumscribing bonuses at once.

Actually it’s not just a dragon game. We played it in Drumet, in mhelvul shape, with pencil and paper. It’s a lot more exciting when you’re plummeting down a cliff though. I suppose that’s true of most things.

Coda: Scores

Make sure that scores make sense here!

I think I lost track of some scores. I’m not doing this very well. My Household Economics and Finance teacher would no longer be happy with me. She would just be afraid of me.

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 40 0 40
Llredh 36 0 36
Ythac 28 +1 29
Greshthanu 25 -2 23
Osoth 18 +6 24
Nrararn 15 +5 20
Tultamaan -8 -1 -9

We Need To Talk (Day 32)

“We need to talk,” said Arilash.

Which was a bit odd of her to say, since we had been talking all morning. We had spent hours in the cave dissecting a spare slightly-killed pointy desert herbivore together. They’ve got about three stomachs, each connected to the other two. We were trying to figure out what went where when, when the animal was alive and eating. Arilash had even gone so far as to turn into a not-killed pointy desert herbivore and eat a few pointy desert plants. But she didn’t want to stay in that shape for long enough to try out even two stomachs, much less all three. I wouldn’t want to either. It’s not a very dignified shape to wear in the presence of your rival.

Actually, the whole dissection exercise isn’t really something you should be doing with your rival. Arilash and I are both finding the mating flight a bit tedious.

“No. We need to fight,” I said.

“I suppose we ought to a little bit, for form’s sake,” she admitted. “But let’s talk about what we’re fighting about.”

So I breathed lightning on her left foreleg. It barely got through her the Small Wall, but enough to make her scowl. She must have thought I was being careless, though, because I did it just after an astral heartbeat. Which ought to mean that I wouldn’t have any more lightning ’til the next one, in twenty seconds, and dominance fights don’t usually last that long.

This one looked like it might last longer, unfortunately, because Arilash just blinked at me and looked hurt. Twice hurt actually. Distinctly offended, and slightly singed. She didn’t even riposte, she just said “Can we do this after we talk?”

So I breathed fire on her left foreleg. It poured through her Small Wall like a claw through a sheep. Oops. If she weren’t offended she’d have realized I was up to something.

That at least got her attention. She adjusted her Small Wall to block cold better, since that’s all I had left to breathe for eighteen seconds, and she darted beautifully and elegantly at me and bit my right wing.

So I breathed lightning on her left foreleg, just like I shouldn’t have been be able to do for seventeen more seconds. It wasn’t a lot of lightning. But with Arilash’s Small Wall tilted against cold, it prickled her left foreleg more than the first bolt. She looked very surprised.

“Right. That was tricky,” said Arilash, sounding all annoyed.

We scrabbled around for a while after that, clawing and biting and tailswatting. Before my next heartbeat I was on my back underneath her — on the dissected pointy desert herbivore, yet — and she’d clawed me once with her foreclaws and once with her hindclaws, and bitten my neck.

But I had clawed her belly and bitten her wing. That plus three breaths made five hits.

“Well, you win this one,” she said. “Another few seconds and you’d have been all clawed up, like usual.”

She didn’t get off me, so I turned into a meerkat and leapt out from under her and turned back. “Maybe, and maybe not. I’m more dangerous than you think!”, I boasted politely.

“Well, that was a good breath trick… how did you do it?” she asked. “I can’t squeeze that much fire out of my whefô.”

“Your Small Wall was loose on the lightning side. A half-sized bolt could get inside of it. Half of mine anyways, I’m better at breathing than you.” And if that sounds friendly, it was. I don’t win fights with Arilash very often, and I was in a good mood.

She started healing her left foreleg. “I can feel that — it stings! I wouldn’t trade adult magic for that, but it’s got its place.”

“I got you good!” I helpfully pointed out.

“You did. Now heal your belly before those wounds set,” she said.

I flapped my wings. “Much better!”

She gave me an odd look. “No, you didn’t heal yourself yet.”

I set to work on that. “I mean, that was a nice riposte. Poking me for being the worse fighter really, and broken too. I’m glad you’re taking me seriously as a rival.”

She flicked her tailtip. “I’m taking you seriously. I’m not taking rival seriously.”

“If Roroko were here, would you take it seriously?”

“Probably. But she’s not here. The drakes are stuck struggling for us, and mount-fighting each other like crazy from the sound of it. You and I at least can arrange the mating flight how we like,” said Arilash.

“I’m not going to let you choose your husband now. That’s silly and undignified. And what’s mount-fighting?”

“You’re such an innocent. Mount-fighting is a drake challenge, loser has to turn female and please the winner,” Arilash said. “There’s a whole mount-fighting club in Fohhona. You fly in, pay some, get sorted by size, and then it’s off to the valley to fight and twine. Lots of fun.”

You did it?”

“Oh, yes,” said Arilash. “Annoyed a lot of drakes, too. They were all shouting, ‘If you want hemipenises, I will give you plenty!’. I picked one of those, and we flew off. He was so distracted, he only bit me once before I won the fight. Worse than you, even. He was the dragoness, I was the drake, and half the club was watching and cheering. You look shocked and offended, Jyothky.”

“I’m trying to figure out what I should be shocked and offended about first. Mount-fighting at all? The club? You doing that?”

She lay on her belly, her head on her forepaws. “Roroko was right about me, you know. And the club is in Fohhona — what do you expect all the bachelor drakes to do? Of course they’re going to want to fornicate, and most of them would rather do it in their real bodies. I mean, they could turn into mhelvul and rent whores, but that is so embarrassing ’til you get used to it, and doesn’t feel half as good anyways.” I declined to ask how she knew; she’d probably tell me. “So if you’re going to be shocked and offended about anything, how about our fiancés mount-fighting each other?”

That seemed like a good thing to be shocked and offended about. “Are they?”

“Oh, yes. They’re not finding the dragonesses quite as satisfying as they might have hoped,” said Arilash. Which stung, even though she chose gentle words. Arilash was all they could have hoped for and more. I’m the laggard on that, even if I’m not completely useless like I was two days ago. “Ythac especially. He keeps challenging Csirnis, Llredh, and Greshthanu. Csirnis not for mounting.”

Ythac does? He never mentioned that to me!”

“He does. I wouldn’t mention it to you either if I were him,” said Arilash.

I had to think about that a bit. It does’t make much sense. Ythac never asked for my favors “since we’re engaged anyways” when we were younger, the way that Greshthanu and Tultamaan did. He always seemed to have so much self-control, to me. “Does he win much? They’re all bigger and stronger than him.”

“Not very often. Well, Csirnis won’t mount-fight at all, but Ythac’s claspers are as familiar with Greshthanu and Llredh as mine are.”

“Boys shouldn’t have claspers. Those are girl parts,” I said. “It’s wrong.” I’m right. It is wrong.

“And dragons shouldn’t have hands, but that doesn’t stop you from spending years as a half-time mhelvul. We’ve got lots of power, Jyothky. Why shouldn’t we enjoy it in all the ways we can?”

I was far to upset to talk any more. “I’m going to go outside and enjoy it now. Alone.” Which I did by blasting the north half of Kuhankun Mountain with fire and lightning until it slumped and melted and flowed down into the river of the next valley over. That made a nice crackling and steaming. There’s no better way to calm down. And it truly alarmed my fiancés, to see me so angry.

Serve them right. They’re all a bunch of perverts. I’m going to have to figure out how to beat Arilash enough so get first choice, and marry Csirnis. He may be crazy, but he’s at least decent.

Conversations With The Pervert

«Do you mount-fight my other fiancés?», I wrote to Ythac. I didn’t actually want to talk to Ythac. I was sure I’d end up biting him, probably more than I really wanted to. So I had flown off to a hoven village with a name like Drupe-ek-Kavash, a miserable grubby place except for one nice new blue-roofed building. I was sitting in the yard of a miserable grubby farm, with a small herd of animals that were enough like sheep and chickens so that I’m going to call them sheep and chickens trying to stay as far away from me as they could on the other side. Oh, and some farmers running around with battered semi-automatic guns trying to decide what to do.

«Now and then,» he wrote back shortly.

«It sounded more like a ‘constantly’, from what I hear.»

«No. Not constantly.» There’s no veriception through a language spell, but he sure sounded evasive to me.

I was not about to let him out of my glare. «How many times in the last twelve days?»

«Nineteen.» Once a day, often more.

«Why?» I underlined it about five times.

«I need to train somehow. I won’t win fights against any of them without lots of skill, lots of practice. And I need practice when you’re not watching, I don’t want to look bad in front of you. And they won’t fight me that much without some sort of wager. Mount-fighting is maybe a bit embarrassing, but won’t diminish my hoard.»

I needed to think about that, so I burned a chicken to eat. That’s always a bit delicate. Fire breath wants to be exceedingly hot and spread a lot. Which is wonderful for a weapon, or for melting a mountainside to show how annoyed you are. It’s not so good for cookery. If you’re not careful, you will end up with a chicken burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. And, in this case, several chickens in various states of partial burntness on either side of it, and some very worried farmers with semi-automatic guns trying to decide what to do, more frantically than before.

At least the chicken was fresh and crunchy. The farmers weren’t so happy letting me have it. They argued a bit: “It’s pretty big. If we just wing it, it might get mad and charge. It might hurt somebody.” — “So shoot in the air. The noise will scare it off.” Either their tactics are truly miserable, or they don’t know that I’m intelligent, or they don’t know I already gathered their language. Probably the first one; the other choices are kind of insulting.

«I suppose that makes sense, Ythac.»

«I’m doing it so I have a chance for you. I actually love you, Jyothky.»

Which isn’t something you really expect to hear from a fiancé, especially one who spends so much time coupling with other people and so little with you. Love is for married couples who’ve been together a long time and somehow managed to get it right. We’ve been friends for duodecades, though. Maybe that could do it — couldn’t it?

What is the polite way to answer that, though?

«I suppose that’s fine.» The words looked all unkind in my head after I wrote them. Polite maybe, but not really right. I froze a partially-burnt chicken and took a bite. (Also crunchy, but not as cindery as a burnt one. Too many feathers, though.) I was really trying to put off writing what I knew I really should. The farmers started arguing whether their bullets were big enough to stop me, or whether they’d just make me angry. I hooted “Neither one!” at them, but they didn’t seem to realize that I had spoken.

After the chicken was gone, I persuaded myself to write it anyways. «Shall I fly back and couple with you?

«No, you don’t have to,» he answered.

Which I was just as happy about at the time. And seemed like a good omen really. My husband shouldn’t be pestering me all the time, the way Arilash’s should be pestering her. Also, if I’m angry enough to melt half a mountain at noontime, I probably won’t want to be fornicating at two-thirty.

Then the farmers decided that they had to shoot me. I didn’t really want to have to kill them. So I flapped at them with my hukuchô and made them run away. And then I lumbered into the sky and left Drupe-ek-Kavash, never to return. At least, a bunch of farmers and I hope I don’t return.

I took one of their sheep back to the cave, though. If the drakes are going to have claspers, the dragonesses can do some of the hunting. That’s fair, isn’t it?

Arilash again

I was here in the dragoness cave, writing what you have just read. Arilash was out late, presumably reducing the need for mount-fighting among our fiancés. She flew back in, with some sort of travel spell I guess, so fast that she left little shards of music in her wake. “Did that help any, Jyothky?”

“I don’t think so. He told me he loves me.”

“The sheep told you that? Or the mountain?”

I puffed fire at her. “No. Ythac.”

“Well, I meant the mountain. I’ve never melted nearly so much of one, but I’m sure I’m going to want to before this is over. I didn’t know you had even talked to Ythac — he was with us most of the afternoon.” Arilash rolled on her back and blasted her belly with fire, and the cave filled with the stench of burnt dragon semen. Ythac’s and Nrararn’s.

I couldn’t really accuse her of poaching on my drakes, since (a) we’re officially sharing them for the mating flight, and (b) if we hadn’t been, she’d have had the prior claim on both. So I was a good dragoness and ignored it. “Just writing messages from afar. He’s good with language magic.” I waved my wings around. “Can’t you go wash off in the river? Or doesn’t that stuff dissolve in water?”

“I ran out of soap.”

“Have a drake raid some from Ghemel.”

“Right, we’re on a civilized world. I haven’t seen any of it yet. Did Ythac of the Good With Language Magic explain at all what he meant by loving you?” she said.

“I’d like to see more of Hove myself. Ythac didn’t really give me a seven-page Manifesto of Affection. He didn’t want me to fly over there and fornicate. That’s how I always imagined how a real romantic declaration of love should go.”

“I usually do it while I’m twining somebody,” she said. “It’s more convenient that way.”

“You’ve been in love?” I asked.

She took a huge wad of sand and started buffing the last of the mess off her scutes. “Oh, dozens of times. For about an hour and a quarter after the last orgasm is over.”

“That’s not real love,” I said.

She breathed fire on me, not doing much. “Says the expert in both love and orgasm. Ever had either one?”

“No,” I snapped, and breathed lightning on her, hard enough to scorch through her Small Wall. Which was rude of me: if I was going to fight her, we should decide which form and all of that.

Arilash hissed as she healed herself. “You’re the prickle queen today! If we’re going to keep talking about your personal life, could you at least give me the Hoplonton? Talking with you hurts!”

I couldn’t really take offense at what I wanted to take offense at, so I took offense at something she didn’t actually say. “You know I can’t feel. I know I can’t feel. Murghal probably knows I can’t feel by now. You can always score points off me with it, but by now it’s not very many points,” I hissed.

“I’m not trying to score points off you!” She sounded rather irritated.

“Well, you should be,” I said. “I’m trying to put up a good struggle at least, and you’re not even paying attention most of the time. I actually won a fight this morning, and I’d probably win again if I pounced you now.”

“So maybe you’ll surprise everyone and win the mating flight,” she said. “Fine with me. Just don’t you dare declare it over any sooner than you need to.”

Which makes no sense at all. How could she not care whether or not she won the mating flight? She’s got to have a top choice among the drakes — by then, if not by now. Probably Csirnis, there aren’t many drakes as appealing as Csirnis. If she’s not first, I’ll probably take her top choice.

And of course everyone will know for the rest of forever that she was second in her mating flight. Maybe even last, if I beat her resoundingly enough. There’s a big difference between second and last — I wake up and fret about it for at least a third of an hour every night. Second (which is “third” in any reasonable mating flight, or “sixth” for a drake, or “seventh” for our drakes) means “Put up a good fight”. Last just means “Lost”. Last is just plain humiliating. For your whole life.

And if Arilash loses to me, that means she sure didn’t put up a good fight.

So I sort of blinked confusedly at her, for a bit. She snarled, “I’m going to sleep,” and stuck her head under her wing like a bird.

I was furious. “Turn your back on me in the middle of a dominance contest, will you?”

She raised her wing a bit. “It’s not a declared one. And if it were I’d concede, you slow-witted lizard. I want to sleep.”

So she was serious. Insane, but serious. I prodded her a bit more with some questions and some claws, but she just muttered about wanting to sleep and talking more when at least one of us was willing to be the least bit sensible.

Dead God’s Advice

I couldn’t sleep. So I went to the other cave, evaded a couple of drakes, and found Xolgrohim. Where I had left him — I don’t think he’d had any visitors.

“Good evening! And how are the concerns of the conquering lizards?” he asked.

So I complained about Arilash and Ythac and more Arilash to him. He listened with suitable sympathy. I suppose I was the best entertainment around.

“Speaking as the ghost of a man who had many loves in his life … may I speak frankly, without offense?”

“Of course! You’re the only one around who can.”

“It seems to me that Ythac’s love for you is not, shall we say, one of the great epic loves of all time. Actually, do dragons have great epic loves?”

I snorted sparks. “Oh, of course we do! Elelizet and Harco, Dathe and Esrret … lots of them!”

“I am not sure that Ythac and Jyothky will soon join their place in the draconic literary canon,” he said in a silky little voice. “It could be shyness, this soft little evasion of his. But he is not shy with anyone but you. His excuse rings false. Perhaps you could pry deeper, and find a real reason. He would not be the first man to tell a woman that he loved her as a sort of distraction, a way to keep her quiet while he pursued another. He will mate with Arilash, you say?”

“Yes, he will. While he’s declaring his love for me, even.”

“And Arilash — she sounded evasive, to me. It could be that they have secretly chosen each other. They cannot say so yet. But perhaps they are trying to keep you unaware of their intentions towards each other, to prevent you from taking any strategically potent actions now, while it is easy.”

“Insidious beasts!” I hissed. “What should I do about that?”

“Well, what steps can you take, towards capturing Ythac’s affection? Especially if he refuses to mate with you?”

“I can think of something!” I snarled. So I stomped out of Xolgrohim’s alcove, to where Ythac was sprawled next to Llredh. I thumped him with my tail to wake him up, and kissed him severely, and stomped off to my own cave to try to sleep.

“The kissing, is there some especial reason for her?” asked Llredh, when I was out of the chamber but not out of earshot.

“I think I had a fight with her earlier today. I think she just forgave me,” Ythac answered.

Hardly!

Coda/Scores

Ythac, Llredh, and Greshthanu lose lots of points for mount-fighting. Just this once. Unless it bothers me a lot more sometime later.

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 40 +4 44
Llredh 36 -4 32
Ythac 29 -8 21
Greshthanu 23 -4 19
Osoth 24 0 24
Nrararn 20 0 20
Tultamaan -9 0 -9

Bickery Boring Day (Day 36)

I was sprawled on the top of Kuhankun Mountain, in a blobby crevice that I had melted the other day, catching the noontime sun. I couldn’t see the caves. This was a good thing. I didn’t much want to see any dragons. I’d seen about eight too many of them lately — or maybe nine — and had a surfeit of dominance contests.

The drakes were looking a bit surfeited themselves. Half of them were sprawled on the sand by the river. They couldn’t see me casually. If they had been the least bit paying attention, they would have magiocepted or heard me. But why would a pile of drakes pay attention? I couldn’t see them either, but they were talking loudly.

Llredh:“The casual friendly fight — who will join me in her?”

Osoth:“I am afraid that you must be partnerless in this dance. Ythac is off hunting. For the rest of us, the taedium of the endless contests has become rather redolent of ennui.”

Llredh:“What?”

Nrararn:“He said ‘no’.”

Llredh:“The Grand Draconic — he should learn to speak it!” I don’t know why he said that. They were all speaking in the language of Mhel, not Grand Draconic.

Csirnis:“He is not wholly wrong. There is no urgent need for having constant dominance fights, beyond the minimum that sociability and honor require. Arilash will couple with whoever suits her fancy, and pays the contests no mind. Jyothky will not couple with anyone, and, also, pays the contests no mind.”

Llredh:“Forget Ythac not! You must recognize that he is every bit as eager a vulva-wielder as Arilash.”

Csirnis:“Saying that of our rival, sir, is beneath contempt. Withdraw it or I shall ask to fight you immediately, in a Tea for Disharmony.” Which is one of the most painful of Rhedosaur’s 541, since minor hits don’t count.

Llredh:“I withdraw it! The berserk rage, she leaves me today, tomorrow she returns.”

Nrararn:“Just like Arilash”

Osoth:“An energetic bunch of suitors we are today. No fighting for our fiancées. The only challenge over Ythac‘s honor.”

Csirnis:“Well: all our honor. But I shall gladly contend with you in any way you wish, for any decent stakes, or for no stakes at all if you prefer.”

Osoth:“I would sooner seethe the vile Nevethian stench-pig in the ichor of mummified crospolids to quaff as a sleeping-posset.”

Nrararn:“He said ‘no’.”

Llredh:“The baroque coiling speech, I understand her generally!”

Osoth:“I shall endeavour to exhume archaic verbiage and the cloying remains of ancient elegies from the catacombs of Hove, to the singular end that my quotidian expression shall become a polysphinxian miasma of enigmas.”

Nrararn:“He said ‘no’.”

Csirnis:“He should have done, at least.”

They were silent for a moment or two.

Nrararn:“Csirnis, were you serious about Jyothky?”

Csirnis:“While she is not wholly opposed to the core reproductive purpose of the mating flight, she does not follow the lead of Arilash. She has her own style, which is rather less earthy.”

Llredh:“He said ‘no’.”

Csirnis:“I said ‘yes’, actually.”

Llredh:“He said ‘no, I didn’t get to coil tails with her.’ That recreation, that fiancée, she evades me also.”

Nrararn:“So, which would be the unluckier one: the drake who marries Jyothky, or the drake who marries Arilash?”

Llredh:“The fool, or the simpleton: which one is you? The husband of Arilash enjoys her thrice or four times a day. Lucky beyond lucky the husband of Jyothky counts himself to enjoy her thrice or four times at all!”

Which stung a lot!

Nrararn:“Does Arilash’s husband think he can keep up with her? Does Arilash’s husband think he can keep her? She has never been faithful a day in her life, except the last few, and that only because no suitable adultery partners are convenient. Do you think she’ll be a faithful mate for more than, oh, three weeks at the outside?”

Llredh:“The constant copulation, I provide for her! The need to wander will be far, far from her.”

Csirnis:“And saying that of our fiancée, sir, is even further beneath contempt than Llredh’s insinuations about Ythac! Nrararn, I expected better of you! Withdraw that libel — withdraw it at once, I say, or you shall face the fiercest fight that law and custom allow!”

So Csirnis will defend Arilash’s honor, but not mine?

Nrararn:“I withdraw, I withdraw!”

Osoth:“Still, let hyperbole be rendered into parabole, or even elliptibole, our fiancées are a study in amatory opposites. Perhaps, in all mental equilibrium, one drake may prefer the one, another the other. Even if neither one is precisely perfect in all regards.”

Nrararn:“Not that we get to choose. Still, which would you prefer?”

Osoth:“There is no real choice. Arilash may toy with me now and then on our mating flight, when the bumptious appeal of Llredh is temporarily flaccid. I expect no more after she marries.”

Nrararn:“And no less, too?”

Osoth:“I make no such pronouncements in the presence of the prince.”

Llredh:“He said ‘no’.”

Csirnis:“Llredh, you will not trick me into fighting Osoth for reasons that are not my own. If you wish him to be injured, you must do it yourself.”

Osoth:“Nrararn, you humiliate yourself. You attempt to inviegle us into speaking ill of our fiancées, at least one of whom can surely hear our declamations. This is a poor and petty amusement for any day, and thrice poor and petty during a declared truce.”

Llredh:“Oh, what is he doing, is it that?”

Nrararn:“Simply chatting. There’s little enough to do here else, save fight and fuck and feed.”

Csirnis:“Which are, as you well know, the proper and important duties and rights of dragons on their mating flight.”

Llredh:“Dead dull, the rest of each day.”

Osoth:“And what does a bellicose beast such as yourself do the rest of the day, when in your familial domicile you did reside?”

Llredh:“Research into poison, mostly, on Mhel. Antidotes for curchao stings.”

There was a moment of silence. I wasn’t expecting that of Llredh, and evidently nobody else was either.

Csirnis:“I am not from Mhel. What are those?”

Llredh:“The large poisonous insects of equatorial Mhel, is what they are.”

Csirnis:“Large enough to endanger a dragon? I heard nothing of such dangers of Mhel!”

Llredh:“The smallest dragonet, she fears no sting of a curchao. Harsh their stings to small people! Many the mhelvul who lose a limb to one, or a life or a child. Yet a few drops of tincture of scharniu, a common thing on Squeretz, will save nearly every one. This thing I discovered myself, after much seeking.”

Csirnis:“Remarkable! I knew nothing of this. You take better care of your small people than I had expected.”

Llredh:“Small people, they are the labor. A bit of care, they work all the harder, and last the longer too.”

Nrararn:“Well, this dismal desert holds no attractions like toxicology, or much of anything else.”

Osoth:“Alas, there are but few ghosts in here, and those of the dimmest and most tedious sort.”

Llredh:“Plentiful copulation, she is of some attraction.”

Csirnis:“But with only two females — for which again I apologize on behalf of my former world — and only one of those being as eager as one might have thought a dragoness on her mating flight would be — even that attraction is somewhat limited. Physically engaging, to be sure, but there are aspects of life beyond the body’s basic wishes.”

Nrararn:“We are agreed, then?”

Csirnis:“On what?”

Nrararn:“Finding something less boring to do.”

I stuck my head over some melted bits of Kuhankun Mountain. “Yes, let’s!”

Llredh and Csirnis looked pleasantly embarrassed to realize that I had listened to them not speak so well of me.

Coda/scores

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 47 -3 43
Llredh 37 -3 34
Ythac 25 0 25
Greshthanu 24 0 24
Osoth 21 -1 20
Nrararn 20 -1 19
Tultamaan -7 0 -7

Seduction of Nrararn and Osoth (Day 37)

This morning I was flomped on the mountain I had melted, writing about yesterday. Nrararn and Osoth circled overhead twice side by side, and flew down to land on either side of me.

I was instantly suspicious of them.

Always when drakes are together on a mating flight, they’re contesting with each other at least a little bit. (Me and Arilash too, in principle, but see Day 32 about how that is going.) So, usually they’ll be racing a bit, each one trying to get there first. Or maybe each one trying to fly higher than the other, in case there’s an excuse to have a fight. Or whatever.

Nrararn and Osoth were just, well, flying side by side, without any of that.

I lifted my chin off the frozen lava and peered at them. “You’re looking inordinately peaceful today.”

“In matters of love and marriage, our contest is as bitter and dire as any that this dragonless world has ever seen! Yet, somehow, there is an entire world beneath our wings, to observe, to explore, to sift for secrets,” said Osoth.

“What oblique, obscure, occult Osoth isn’t saying is, we’ve found the stars here, or some of them anyways. Want to see them with us?” said Nrararn.

“The stars? Were they missing? … This is a Typical Toroid. There aren’t supposed to be any stars,” I said. “There’s no sky that isn’t Hove for them to be in.”

“Right, but we found some anyways. Come see!” said Nrararn, as if that explained everything.

I puffed sparks of lightning at Nrararn. “You’re just trying to get me to spread my claspers for you again.”

“The effects of the celestial realm may be mirrored in the terrestrial in divers ways. The fecundity and humidity that lie at the heart of the natural world may, perhaps, be among them.”

“He said ‘yes’. In a truly beautiful place, if our stolen hoven tourist guidebooks are any indication,” said Nrararn “Got any better plans for the day?”

I didn’t.

They were acting quite odd on the way.

“How much further are these stars?” I asked. “We’ve been flying a while.” The while was well over an hour by that point, and we were still over wild and apparently star-free lands.

“We could fly all the way across the sky to the land on the other side!” said Nrararn. “There’s air all the way.”

“Wise, wise sky-mage, to answer the question only with praises of his chosen domain!” said Osoth. Then he blinked. “Which is to say, rather, that though we could fly across the sky, in this instance there is no need to. Another third of an hour will bring us there.”

“Are your wings tired?” asked Nrararn, with a pointed look at Osoth.

“For if they are, Nrararn could surely conjure a comfortable wind, fast as a tempest, gentle as a breeze, letting us fly there with only a moderate delay and much less effort,” said Osoth. “Such are the powers of sky magic.”

So strange, hearing one of my fiancés praise another one. Very suspicious!

In The Cave of Stars

“Behold! The Cavern of Dancing Lights! Made by the wicked king Vludeath in ages long past, as the site of his secret nympharium! His principal queen Gelecheledesea discovered it, and disguised herself as the next concubine to gain entrance. She struck him with an oar, knocking him into the lake, and there he died,” said Osoth. “Or at least, so run the legends. If it amuses you — either of you, of course I mean — we can learn the truth.”

The Cavern of Dancing Lights wasn’t that much to look at from the outside. A snaky dirt road with heavy wagon-tracks slithered up the side of Mt. Ghrasco. A barren stony field dripped off the side of the road, with a battered sign covered with cryptic glyphs and a few dusty cars parked haphazardly around. A small house nestled by the mountainside. A few hovens looked around and spoke to each other in an unfamiliar tongue. They could not see us, the Esrret-Sky-Painted took care of that badly and in a bit the Pyerthu’s Spare Hallucination took care of it better, but they surely could hear the sound of our wings and our speech.

“Jyothky, Osoth! I suggest that we take the shapes of aquatic birds for this expedition.”

“Undignified!” squawked Osoth. “I do not object for the sake of making you look the worse, Nrararn. But could you really imagine that a elegant and proper dragoness such as Jyothky could take for even one moment the shape of a goose or …”

I was, by that time, already a pitch-black duck. “I’m only elegant and proper in the sense of ‘not as promiscuous as Arilash.’ I’m not even sure that’s a good kind of elegant and proper as an adult.”

Nrararn turned into a brilliant white duck with a gaudy rainbow crest down his back.

“Am I the only one with … ” Osoth struggled to find words that didn’t insult me. “… … a sufficiently refined sense of self-esteem, or, nay, even vanity, which forbids so casually taking the shape of such a lesser creature?”

“Csirnis wouldn’t like it either, I don’t think,” I said.

“Perhaps you could turn into a bat? That’s a bit dignified, especially in the grand necromantic tradition. You’ll be fine in the cave that way. Though if there’s any playing in the water, you’ll have to shift again to join,” said Nrararn.

So two ducks and a bat dived onto the nervous hovens sitting in the house. They yelped and swatted at us with hats and folding chairs, but it was too late for that; we had already cast the The Spilling of the Speech and learned the Queltzin language. The signs just read “Cavern of Dancing Lights” plus hours and prices of admission, and the hovens were discussing how strange it was that peculiarly-colored ducks and bats should be assaulting them. Nrararn scattered the hovens away with a flick of his hukuchô, anyways.

“Now, will you show me these underground stars?” I asked my fiancés.

“Over there are postcards of them… I think the actual stars themselves are through that door,” said Nrararn. Beyond that door was a cave in clay and stone, a lazy dark stream, a small dock for three small boats. Spikes were set in the walls, and ropes on them. A big sign in Queltzin read “No Candles Here!”.

We followed the ropes upstream, candlelessly. Hoven laughter and squeals guided our way, as the stream got slower and deeper, and curved left and right and left again, and broadened.

Then it opened into a modest underground lake. Not a huge one — Csirnis would have been a bit cramped in there, unless he hid his dignity and turned into a duck. Two little boats of delighted hovens were in the center of the lake, staring at the ceiling.

And the ceiling was impressive and beautiful. Hovens had set it with grands upon grands of bits of mirror. Each boat had one guide holding two candles, waving them in slow circles. A myriad reflections sparkled in the ceiling, and a myriad myriad answered from the boat-shattered surface of the lake.

“Behold the stars of Hove!” said Osoth in sepulchural tones.

“You’re right, Osoth. This isn’t a duck sort of place.” I turned into a black watersnake, so I could swim with just my head above the surface. Tiny sparks swirled on the surface. Nrararn followed suit after one of the hoven children said, “A duck! A duck! Look, a duck!” His parents teased him a bit and told him to look at the lights in the ceiling since they’d driven all that way and paid for it.

Nrararn breathed a delicate thread of lightning at a stalactite. The sudden transient brilliance shattered into a myriad fragments of light, splashing all around the wet cave for an instant. Osoth and I hissed appreciatively.

The hovens yelped, some in amazement and some in fear. “Oh, cousin Nifferat didn’t say anything about that when she was here!” said a visitor.

“We didn’t…” said a guide.

I laughed, and tried blowing a firebubble. That’s harder than it sounds. Firebreath — any breath really — wants to rush out and spread and destroy things. If you’re persuasive and slow and careful, you can usually get it to hold together in a ball and hover near your mouth, for a little while at least. (On rereading — you can only do that if you’re a dragon, in which case you already know about it. I meant ‘I’ not ‘you’.) It’s harder when you’re not using your own mouth, too.

Which is just an excuse for why it came out wobbly and pointy, not a tight-wrapped flaming globe that I had intended. It drooped and bobbled in the middle air, waving its tongues in all directions, and filling the room with bright reflected sparks and a more intense glory than the candles had provided.

The tourists — hoven and dragon — ooh!ed with much appreciation. “A fireworks! A fireworks like the Floret sun!” chirped the child.

“Drukah and Bmern save us,” mumbled the guide.

Nrararn blew a bubble of lighning, just as wobbly as my firebubble but he wrapped it in a whirlwind, and tugged it into a cone shape. Fire and lightning swayed and circled each other. Children clapped, and I would have too if I had had forepaws then.

Osoth said, “Best, I suppose, if I did not add my own venefice to the celebration. Dark and dusty death does not delight to dance in deep mirrors!”

“Though better than lightning or fire when hunting a hoard!” said Nrararn. “My own breath melts metals, chars gems, ruins electronics! Yours will slay without such a vastness of destruction.”

“Mommy, that bat is talking about death! Why is a bat talking about death?” said the child.

“More to the point, why are you talking in Queltzin, Osoth?” I asked him. In Queltzin, of course.

“Queltzin is a scratchy, sparky tongue! Its sandpaper cadences and flashing fluids are uniquely appropriate for these caves!” said Osoth, giggling. “Or else I just learned it.”

“Mommy, bat and snake are talking! Talking in the cave!” chirped the child.

Mommy wasn’t so enthusiastic. She turned to the guide. “Sir, is this part of your usual performance?” His terrified eyes and scent (if hovens can smell — I think they can’t really) answered her without speech. “No? Perhaps we can leave now?”

“They’re between us and the way out,” said the guide.

Nrararn reared out of the lake and turned back into a duck. “We’re here to look at the mirrors, just like you! Stay if you will, go if you must!”

“Besides, we’re not very big and we’re not very dangerous!” I added, and turned into a duck too. This caused Osoth to erupt in giggles.

“Mommy, mommy! The snakes becomed a ducks!” chirped the child, clapping her hands.

“Yes … it did …” said the mother, rather perplexed.

I hopped into their boat and sat on the child’s foot. “Now I becomed a shoe!” Nrararn went me one better, flapping to sit on her head. “And I becomed a hat!” Child and necromancer apparently contended to see which of them could laugh the most. The child had the dual advantages of (1) being tickled by water running down her cheeks and (2) not having studied so much death. So she won.

The mother was untrickled, untickled, untricked, and unamused. She picked Nrararn off the child’s head and put him gently but firmly on the gunwale or narwhal or whatever it’s called. The side of the boat. “I’m afraid that I do not allow ducks, no matter how pretty, to sit on my daughter.”

Nrararn squawked indignantly, and flapped his wings for balanace. “There is only one possible response for this! O mystic bat, you must conjure up the ghost of King Vludeath!”

“That’s impossible,” said one of the other hoven tourists. “Ghosts do not exist.”

“Fortunately, neither do necromantic bats!” chirped Osoth.

He spoke five words that fell into the lake like drops of molten lead, and the dark waters boiled around them with frore vapors, and the wide-eyed apparition of a crowned skeleton rose up from an impossible distance. “Let the dead and drowned drink of oblivion!” it moaned.

“Nope!” said Osoth. “I’ll let the dead and drowned describe their death!” I blinked at him. He added, to me, “No topic is superior, no topic is more polite, no topic is closer to the heart of the undead spectre than the matter of his own death. Indeed, the greatest peril of necromancy is the terrible, terrible boredom of conversing with an endless parade of monomaniacs upon that single topic.”

The hovens drew back as far as the could. Even the fearless child shivered and hid behind her mother.

“I drank brandied wine and honeyed wine, I sucked the narcotic nectars of the purple lotus and the grey, I luxuriated in the smoke of storax and brahavni candles in the twinkling darkness. I sent my wife out to fetch more wine. I drifted into sleep. My boat tipped over, and asleep I slipped into the deep lake, and the deeper death.”

“Oopsie!” said Osoth. “You got some bloodier rumors about it after you died.”

The spectre regarded him dully. “In death there are no rumors. In death there are no lies. In death there is but a single truth.”

The hoven child buried her head in her mother’s side, crying, and the adults didn’t seem much happier. I flapped my wings, and honked at Osoth, “Stop playing with your ghostie. It’s scaring our fellow tourists!”

“They must not fear! It is conjured simply in terzo oblotto — there is no possibility of any sort of doom or danger!”

“I’m not entirely sure that they appreciate the subtleties of your art,” said Nrararn. “I’m not sure that I do, for that matter, for they are extremely subtle, and, of course, extremely artistic.”

Osoth banished his ghost. The ghost had, more or less, banished the hovens too. Once it left, the guides started rowing the boats back out as quickly as they could. “Goodbye, little hoven girl! Thanks for your foot!” I quacked at her, and waddled back into the water.

Hovens gone, we play-fought as ducks in the water. Well, Nrararn and I did. Osoth stayed a dignified bat, hanging dignifiedly upside-down on a mirrory stalactite. We dignifiedly breathed threads of fire and lightning at him, but that cracked a couple bits of mirror, so we stopped.

Despite the introduction, they didn’t try to mate with me. I didn’t realize that ’til just now.

Alliance

“The two of you are awfully friendly,” I said to them as we flew back. “It’s making me suspicious.”

“Should we tell her?” Nrararn asked of Osoth.

I preemptively translated, “He said ‘yes’.”

“For some interpretation of the past tense!” Osoth protested. “But I see no grave doom that may come from Jyothky’s full knowledge of our compact. Indeed, should it please her, we could have no greater ally.”

“Now I’m even more suspicious,” I said.

“I’m going to steal a trick from Csirnis’ book,” said Nrararn, and destroyed the spell that protected him from veriception. “So, just the truth about this. Though, let it be a private truth! Please don’t tell the other drakes. Let them figure it out for themselves.”

“That’s dramatic,” I said. “I’ll be discreet about it.”

“The drakes have a pretty clear ranking, except for the two of us. Csirnis has got to be at the top, then Llredh second. Greshthanu is third,” said Nrararn

“Fourth, by reason of his vast and impressive blockheadedness! Ythac is third,” said Osoth.

“Well, they’re third and fourth anyways,” said Nrararn. “Osoth and I are fifth and sixth, except that I’m prettier…” Osoth glared at him, and he continued, “… well, we’re fifth and sixth, and Tultamaan is clearly seventh. We were bickering at each other about which was fifth, like that, and then we realized that it didn’t matter who was fifth. Only first and second really matter much. You might dip down to third and pick Ythac if he is third by the end, since you’re friends. Not to fifth though.”

“My esteemed colleague must mention one further esoteric aspect of our situation. In most mating flights, there is an especial reason to struggle for fifth place, or, in any event, to struggle not to be sixth. It is a particular humiliation to be the least among the drakes. But Tultamaan, and, paradoxically, first-ranked Csirnis, are saving us from that particular bit of strife,” added Osoth.

“So Osoth and I have made an alliance. Naturally we will each strive to persuade you of our own supremacy as your mate. But we shall not interfere with each other. We shall not contest so hard for fifth place! We shall have one friend on the mating flight, which is an unusual luxury for a drake. Indeed, we may take steps which aid the other.” Nrararn hesitated a bit. “Such as sharing the recommendation of the ghost of a well-travelled native merchant of the previous century for what to see in the area.”

“So I’m flying around with two drakes allied against me?”

“Allied for you!”

“Allied to acquire me!”

“Arilash is the only one not trying to acquire you,” said Nrararn, “And, given Arilash’s general nature, even that’s not a sure thing.”

A vile concept, being acquired by Arilash! But I didn’t know what to make of the alliance. That’s no part of a usual mating flight that I know about. So I asked someone.

Dead God’s Advice

“To summarize, two of your fiancés have made a compact to win your hand?” asked Xolgrohim.

“I don’t have hands. Win my claspers,” I said with a bit more of a snarl than one ordinarily uses talking to (a) a dead god, or (b) one’s romantic confidant.

“Forgive me; I died before learning the proper nomenclature for the parts of a dragon,” he said. “How great an ally is a dragon?”

“Rather great! How many dragons did it take to squash Ztesofaum and all his empire?” I snapped.

“Five had been involved in one way or another. Perhaps more. My attention was diverted by trying to escape from your parents,” said Xolgrohim. “I do not fully appreciate how relevant that statistic is. Does winning your, well, private parts, entail a military campaign like the conquest of Mhel?”

“No. Not usually, anyways,” I had to admit.

“Osoth has subtle and useful powers. I should be the last one to deny that. They have been exceedingly useful to me. Nrararn I have observed less closely, but he braids lightning into his mane, does he not?” said the bottled god.

“Yes.”

“Can either of them do anything that makes the least bit of difference towards pressing their own suits, much less each others’?” he asked.

I chewed on my tailtip. When I tasted blood I healed it. Then I answered. “Osoth says that necromancy is useful for tracking down the long-buried treasures of the dead. That’s supposedly why he reanimated you.”

“I should be happy to tell him what I know. I daresay he would be disappointed, for all that I once owned is now in the land of Rankotherium and Dessvaria, back on Mhel. They may not be quite as eager to grant permission for Osoth’s treasure-seeking as your parents were,” said Xolgrohim. “Actually, I daresay that Rankotherium and Dessvaria own the greater part of it. A few things were hidden before the dragons came, but there were more urgent things to do than to cache gems and scrolls for the far-future convenience of the conquerors’ spawn.”

“That’s true. Around here we’ve only got the ghosts of hoven bovines. I don’t know that Osoth is ever going to be a very successful treasure hunter,” I said.

“So, if I understand draconic terms properly, I should have to judge the both of them to be essentially useless as husbands, and as allies to each other and anyone else,” pronounced Xolgrohim. “Their alliance is an admission of weakness and incompetence. You should scorn them for it. Take a dragon more worthy of your attentions: Greshthanu or Llredh.”

Which I suppose makes plenty of sense.

Coda: Scores

Nrararn and Osoth get points for being fun. Fun isn’t actually very important. Llredh gets points for some very mighty fighting in challenge contests, but I didn’t feel like writing about that. It is important. It is also dull.

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 43 +1 44
Llredh 34 +2 36
Ythac 25 -1 24
Greshthanu 24 -1 23
Osoth 20 +2 22
Nrararn 19 +2 21
Tultamaan -7 0 -7

Seduction of Tultamaan (Day 41)

I woke up this morning in a tangle of dragon. Last night I had gone to sleep alone and early, when Virtuet first rolled behind the Godaxle. Arilash was out frolicking with grace, enthusiasm, and … Greshthanu, I think it was. Llredh maybe. She evidently slithered in at some time in the night and decided to sleep on me rather than her own spot. I am evidently warmer or more comfortable than bare floor, whatever “warmer” or “more comfortable” are like.

I escaped from her clutches, getting some grumbly mostly-asleep protests, and waddled out of the girls’ cave to try to find Murghal and make him do something cooklike with whatever bits of dead desert mammals were left over. He’s not a very good slave, not very attentive — he spends most of the day chatting with Osoth or someone, or even bottled Xolgrohim.

Tultamaan was lying in wait for me on a sand dune. The sunlight gleamed on his brick red scales, setting them off against the dull red of the dune. Some scrubbly spiky desert plants vaguely echoed his bright green chevrons and the clusters of spikes on his head and shoulders. His useless forelegs were tucked under his chest, claws sticking out, just as if he had put them there the way anyone else would. He looked rather like an elemental spirit of the Ghemelian desert. I’ll bet he had taken a third of an hour arranging his body to best effect.

“A pleasure to see you come by my corner of our encampment, Jyothky,” he said.

“Good morning to you, too, Tultamaan,” I said.

“I trust and expect that you are here for Appropriate Purposes, as I am?” he said.

“Breakfast is appropriate at any hour of the day or night,” I said.

“Ah, the famous Jyothky appetite has come to visit. A pity that Another appetite didn’t come with it. That other appetite hasn’t exactly Overstayed Its Welcome, if you know what I mean. Its presence has not become Oppressive.,” he said.

“It’s too early in the morning for that,” I said. Meaning being bitten about my inadequacies, though I suppose it could have gone for fornication too.

“Ah! Now it is too early for that. Later on it will be too close to Lunchtime. After that, it will be too much in the Middle of Eclipse. Further on, it will be Far Too Midafternoony. It will be time for Lying About On Melted Rocks and Looking Appealing Without Actually Doing Anything About It. Then, of course, it must not interrupt Dinnertime. After that comes an hour of all-important Complaining That There Are No Books To Read. Then, of course, an early bedtime, so that you can rise from your cave early the next morning for yet another exciting day of Avoiding The Issue,” said Tultamaan.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said. I wrapped the Hoplonton around myself.

“A very apotropaic, that. A very good defensive spell. Just the thing to cast when your fiancé is having a pleasant casual conversation about a topic so near and dear to both of us. What better time for Seeing To One’s Protections? One can’t go Unguarded in the Presence Of One’s Lovers and Suitors, after all,” said Tultamaan.

“I cast it every morning when I get up. It saves my scales from little injuries that I can’t feel,” I protested. Which is perfectly true.

“Ah! That would be a Similarity between us, and a Difference. We are both a bit crippled here and there. But you do not feel Anything, and I feel things quite acutely. All Sorts Of Things,” he said.

“I am going to find the dragon who decided to use the same word for ‘experience emotions’ and ‘experience bodily sensations’, and assault him with unpleasant emotions and unpleasant bodily sensations until he really can’t tell the difference,” I said. (I say that regularly. It’s a sore spot with me. (And I’m going to bite whoever made up that set phrase, too. There’s no escaping touch words.))

Tultamaan would not be distracted by one of my favorite gripes. “Emotions can come with bodily sensations. Especially Bodily Sensations Which One Should Produce Upon One’s Mating Flight. And I use the word ‘produce’ with a Determined Intent. I do not insist that one ‘Experience’ them when one cannot. This behavior may distinguish one from one’s … dare I use so bold a word? … Friends.”

“What are the other drakes doing to you?”

That did distract him for a moment. “They are careful to propose contests which, while not strictly impossible with two legs, are certainly more challenging. Greshthanu suggests a footrace. Osoth suggests a calligraphy competition. Still, I suppose one Ought Not Complain. The others are generally too confident in their own superiority to bother offering challenges at all.”

“I have to feel… I have to sympathize with you on that. Arilash won’t challenge me much.”

“Another Point of Similarity between us,” he said. “Another thing we Have In Common.”

“Trying not to be ranked last in our sex?”

“Precisely. Though, like the other Similarity, this one comes with a Difference. When you are ranked last, you will find yourself married to a Drake. Indeed, he will be a Drake of Some Distinction. You may choose the second among seven.”

“I’m going to be ranked second. Not last.”

“That is a Truly Subtle Distinction when there are only two dragonesses. But we digress. For my part, I might perhaps — perhaps! — excel over Osoth or Nrararn. It is barely imaginable that I could excel over both of them. Ythac? Greshthanu? Llredh? Csirnis? Preposterous! One could challenge them to a contest of Complaining, one supposes. This one might win, but would earn one very little glory.”

“Yes…?”

“And this is, of course, your first mating flight. You will not need any further one to secure yourself a Wholly Satisfactory Mate.”

“Well, that’s an awfully optimistic way to think of any of you,” I said. “Csirnis is insane about honor and justice. Llredh is coarse and brutal. And so on down the list.”

“And down to me. Despite being Eloquent and Far More Intelligent and Sensible than Any Other Drake, I am somehow seen as Whiny and Cowardly. Even without consider the unfortunate matter of the forelegs. Yes. Your mate may not be Wholly Satisfactory. He may have a few Endearing Flaws. My mate will not have any Endearing Flaws. She will, simply, not exist at all.”

“Well, what do you want me to do about that?” Which was the stupidest thing I can imagine saying. I can do something about it, I just won’t.

He didn’t take that opening, though. “And, furthermore, this is my third mating flight. There will not even be time for a fourth, such as happens to one drake in a grand of grands. Because for Some Unsaid Reason this mating flight was unaccountably delayed for a dozen years or more.”

“I won’t take any responsibility for that. I wanted to get started as much as anyone else did. My body wasn’t cooperating.”

“Exactly!” he beamed. “You see the Unpleasant Situation which ‘your body not cooperating’ has put us into. And me, in particular.”

“I see that I’m not getting breakfast any time soon, at least.”

“Oh! I will happily cooperate with you getting breakfast. I ask only that you Cooperate With Me in exchange,” Tultamaan said.

I sort of glared at him.

“Let us consider what will become of me after we return. Naturally I am far too decent a drake to indulge in the Activities which remain open to Unfortunate Elderly Bachelors, such as are available in Fohhona and other such Places of Much Repute. I do not consider mount-fighting to be an activity in which Decent Drakes take part. Neither is the occasional affair with Small People at all to my taste.”

I generally try not to think about what bachelor drakes do; that’s their business, and Arilash’s I suppose. Except for ones like Quel Quen, who make quite a name for themselves by exploring new worlds and, I’m sure, make the dragonesses who chose other drakes over them rather embarrassed.

“So this flight is my final remaining chance for Sexual Congress. There is, in fact, no other real reason for me to stay here even a few more weeks. I might just as well return home and start to enjoy the humiliations of being Ranked Last In Three Separate Mating Flights. Except that that would deprive the rest of you of my Brilliant Insights, and of course, leave me no further chances to enjoy the Company of Dragonesses. Ever.”

“I haven’t seen a lot of Brilliant Insights,” I said.

“You’re seeing one now. And I haven’t seen a lot of Company of Dragonesses,” he answered.

“Arilash has been pretty busy, hasn’t she?” I said. Unwisely, as if I needed to ensure that I’d come in last instead of second. I was rather rattled and upset at Tultamaan.

“Arilash has not found me Wholly To Her Taste. Not to put too fine a point on it, after two Experiences she has told me not to ask her again. Which is an Unfair and indeed Repugnant way to treat a fiancé. I think she does not like my forelegs. This is a popular opinion. I, myself, hate them with a passion that dwarfs even Arilash’s distaste for them.”

“Can’t you wear a shape that doesn’t have them? Like, oh, a bird or something?”

He spread his spikes. “Is that your Opinion of me? That I am more of a Scarlet Grebe, or a Hargreve’s Lesser Puddle Duck — or, if you are being generous, perhaps a Pileated Kingfisher — than I am a Dragon of Honorable Lineage and Substantial Rank At Court?”

I have no spikes, but I can sure hiss. “I’m just trying to be helpful! I like being a bird!”

“Perhaps it is just as well that you have no Matrimonial Intentions towards me. Your suitability for the Royal Presence is not Entirely Peerless,” he said acidly.

“I haven’t decided who to marry yet! And I’ll be a better wife than that!” I wailed.

“You are Practicing for this ‘Being a Better Wife’ sort of thing by being a Worse Fiancée? This strategy has both short and long term flaws. For one long-term instance, it will limit your fertility in the future. Unless you wish all your dragonets to have two, or, even worse, One sire?”

“I’ve got a dozen years for that! I don’t need to do it all today!” But he was perfectly right about that, clawrasp it. If I don’t get my ova partially fertilized during my mating flight, well, either my husband will have to supply all three parts himself (which is a bad thing for several practical and theoretical reasons), or, um, the alternative is simply not done by any sort of respectable dragoness — pace Dessvaria.

“But today will soon become Yesterday, and, in due course, Three Months and Eleven Days Ago, and then Quite a Long Time Ago. If you do not get take care of matters today — for some choice of ‘today‘ — they will remain uncared-for indefinitely. A Truism, but True nonetheless.

“… well, yes …” is all I could think of to say.

“Now that you see the Inescapable Logic of my position, I do expect that you will Fulfil Your Premarital Duties.” He stared at me with eyes like frozen coals.

I breathed a tight hot fireball into his face, and leapt (viz. waddled) into the air, and flew off downriver. I expected he would follow me, but he didn’t. I suppose he has a lot of experience at rejection.

I curled up on a hilltop, and moped meditated. Which is totally unfair of me, since he’s completely right. Most of my fiancés won’t have much of a chance with dragonesses for most of their lives. Arilash and I should be as nice as we can to them, shouldn’t we? And Arilash is doing her part, and Roroku’s, and some of mine.

So: today’s resolution. I will couple with all of my fiancés this week.

Except for Tultamaan. He may be right, but he’s horrid. Fairness only goes so far.

Seduction of Csirnis

After a few hours of assorted moping, mixed with occasional periods of introspection and deprecation, I decided that I’d start off by coupling with Csirnis. This was very practical. If anyone can make me feel like a worthwhile dragoness doing the noble and honorable thing even if it’s not exactly what I’d be doing for my own purposes, it’s got to be Csirnis. He does the noble and honorable thing as easily as breathing. Well, breathing fire.

When I got back to the camp, Csirnis and Llredh were circling around in the middle air, with most of the dragons watching. Llredh swatted at Csirnis with a brutal forepaw full of glittering white claws. Csirnis dodged with lazy elegance and grace, and snapped at Llredh’s wrist with his tail. Llredh growled in pain. The spectators warbled, “First blood to Csirnis!”

I called out, “Winner copulates with me!”

All the dragons peered up at me. Greshthanu shouted back, “How come you never do that when I’m fighting!”

“I will, I will,” I answered. I meant it, too.

“I see that my Impassioned Lecture has produced a Crude Approximation of the Right Result,” said Tultamaan, flicking his tailtip in annoyance.

“I see that I’m going to have a real challenge after all!” said Arilash, spreading her forewings happily.

“The prize, she is the small extra reason why I will win this contest!” said Llredh, and snarled, and flapped fiercely to get to Csirnis.

Csirnis slipped beautifully away from him, gliding over Llredh, trailing his hindpaw lazily and leaving a long red score down Llredh’s back. “Second blood to Csirnis too!” I called out. “Looks like he’ll be a happy drake soon!”

Llredh spun around in the air in a ferocious whirl. He caught Csirnis mid-tail in his jaws, and jerked his head, sending Csirnis into a ragged tumble. The two drakes fell together, thrashing and slashing faster than I could follow without actually being in the fight myself. Fifty feet from the ground they split apart, Csirnis flying to the river and Llredh landing in the circle of drakes, each bleeding from a dozen wounds.

“Csirnis? When you’re ready?” I called to him.

He looked back at me with a very noble expression. “Llredh won that fight, actually.”

Llredh hooted. “The quick victory, I have her! Csirnis hurt me more than I hurt him, yes, but I am the quick drake! All my claws taste his blood while he is figuring out which one with which to show more of mine!”

I stared at my intended drake, rather disappointed. He looked back at me. “Llredh is quite a skillful and mighty warrior when suitably inspired. I hope I shall have a rematch. With the same stakes, or any other, or none at all.” He smiled, and dipped his head, and sat by the river and healed his wounds.

Llredh looked up at me. “Hah, you do not expect to couple with mighty Llredh! Do not fear. There are worse fates … Ho, most fates are worse!” He smirked at Ythac. “My favorite sparring partner, you must trade stories with her! Or him, as the case of the moment may be!”

Ythac swatted at Llredh. “You’ll be my girl next time!” Most of the dragons chuckled. Apparently Ythac’s behavior is more amusing than anything else. Disgusting monsters.

“My girl this time, she is Jyothky!”

Right. Well, I did intend to be responsible with six of the seven. And besides, there’s nothing less responsible than not keeping your wagers and promises, even if they turn out wrong. So I circled overhead, waiting for Llredh to fix himself up. I was suave, I was collected, I was gleaming with lust and anticipation. Or trying to be.

«Don’t be so nervous, Jyothky,» wrote Ythac. «You look more like a very large flying rabbit than a dragon. Llredh is fine, he won’t hurt you, he knows what to do.»

«He can’t hurt me, anyways. I wish he could!» I scribbled back to Ythac.

«I didn’t mean it that way!» he wrote back.

«Well, how did you mean it then?» I snapped.

«Oh, never mind. Just don’t you hurt him

«What’s that supposed to mean?»

«It means I’ve distracted you with bickers ’til your date-of-the-day is ready!» wrote Ythac. «That’s what friends are for.»

And Llredh was ready, indeed, very ready. He rose up, beautiful and strong, his own blood and the blood of his rival still red on his orange scales, and he took me in the sky, and we thrashed around in the middle air which had been his battleground. Most of my fiancés shouted encouragements, ’til I breathed winter ice on them to shut them up.

He smelled good, very male, though not as eager as Osoth and Nrararn had been. I didn’t smell that eager myself of course… maybe I would have more for Csirnis. I didn’t enjoy it other than the smell really. From now on, why don’t you assume that that’s how all the sex goes, and I’ll tell you if anything is different?

When my claspers released him, he grunted to me, “To the desert of succulents, come with me, Jyothky.” I was about to complain that I had only offered one copulation, not all three, and if I was going to do more after all I sure wanted everyone to know that I could handle it. But he didn’t sound particularly lustful … more worried or something.

So I flew by his side out to the desert. That part is pretty nice, actually, flying off with someone you’ve just mated with, racing to see if you can get there before the bright sun is swallowed by tentacled pinkness (we couldn’t). Scattering the unhappy scavenger birds with our presence and the sound of our wings, and hearing them hoot imprecations that we absolutely are not allowed to steal their carrion, even if we are immeasurably more powerful than any number of them. (We didn’t.)

“Our mating flight, are they listening to us now?” asked Llredh.

“I don’t think anyone’s listening, unless they’re following us in a very well-disguised form indeed. No scrying spells.”

“My magioception, she is not so keen. My dangersense, my lluyception, my theoception, they are even worse. Of this concept, you must understand as I do, or even more.”

“I do. I’d offer to trade, if I could. Theoception’s pretty much useless … the only god I’ve ever spotted is Osoth’s god-in-a-bottle,” I said. “I miss touch every day, and never more than when I’m with a pretty drake.”

You might think a drake would be happy when a dragoness (1) mates with him, (2) flies off to the wilds with him, and (3) tells him that she had a good time, in however backhanded a way. He wasn’t, though. “Yes, yes. The important thing I will tell you now, may I? You will not like it. But who better than I to tell you? There is none, there can be none.” Yes, he really did echo the words of the victor of the mating flight.

“I suppose so…”

“The rage at missing senses, I know her well. When Osoth and Nrararn praise the sublime lluyew of their gemstones, that is the hour I challenge them both at once and in my fury to defeat them at once. Sense-deprived am I, but strong. Sense-deprived are you too, but still a dragoness.”

“So this is a feeling-dragon sort of thing I need hear about, then?”

“Yes.”

“Say it. I won’t bite you too much for it.”

He stretched his wings and climbed a few dozen tail-lengths or so, as an extra precaution. “The copulation with you, she is dry, and dry is painful. Painful to the drake, maybe painful to you too.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “How painful are we talking here? Compared with what Csirnis did to you in your fight?”

“Not so painful as that. But the worse time she is at, this pain. In a fight, the pain, even the rest of us can ignore her. In love, she is not so expected, she comes to me more insistently.”

“So you’re telling me I’m a bad lover.”

“You do not move so nicely as Ythac or Arilash, how could you, they have much more practice. Expertise, I do not expect her here. She will come in time. The dryness, the chafing, I do not expect her here either,” said Llredh. He looked so apologetic and helpful that I roasted a scavenger bird with lightning instead of him.

“It’s not my fault!” I shouted.

“The revenge you are making not, when you bring yourself to copulate! Your fault, he is not. Your hemipenis losing skin, also, he is not,” said Llredh.

I did what any reasonable person would have done under the circumstances, viz., I flew lower and started melting a sand dune into a glass pond with a terrible rage, all at myself. “I am the worst fiancée ever! I barely even manage to want a drake, and when I do that, I hurt him!” And on like that for several minutes while Llredh was trying to get a word in sideways.

Which he finally managed by landing on my back and sticking his head in front of mine. Which meant that he got a full firebreath right in the face, and even with the Small Wall and a very strong vô set to take it, it must have stung a good deal.

After I breathed on him, while I was recovering, he said, “The answer, she is not so troublesome.”

I’m fairly sure I said something about the answer being that I go off by myself and never bother to so much as look at a drake ’cause it’s hopeless. I don’t remember exactly what I said — I mean, I usually make up half of everyone’s lines anyways, but this time I really would rather forget everything I said.

“Not that. The holes that are not slick, now and then and often I twine them. Oil! The oil of olives or seeds, she is your ally.”

“… what? …”

So he explained about how the slipperiness doesn’t need to come from me to satisfy the drake, it just needs to be there somehow. A slosh of oil in the right place will do just fine.

“So how do I manage that in the air?”

Llredh allowed as how his relevant experience hadn’t been in the air.

“Where did you learn it, anyways?”

“Arilash, she is the true expert among us in knowledge of the joys of the body. Second place, he is me perhaps.” Which I understand to mean, roughly, “none of your business”. Or that I, as ninth place in that contest — no, last place — probably wouldn’t understand or approve of whatever it is that he does.

“So where do I get oil? We’re in the middle of a desert. We’ve only got one slave, and he’ll be shot in sight if he goes to a market,” I whined.

“The drakes, they are the raiders among us. The loot, the prizes, those things the drakes should bring to the dragonesses.”

“I’d be so embarrassed, telling you all to bring me oil to do what I can’t do for myself. I’m sure some of them would figure out why I want it.”

He gave me a very innocent look. Well, of course they’ll find out when I go to mate with them and slosh them with it, anyways.

“Llredh, thank you for telling me. Telling someone bad news is not so easy.”

“It is the important thing to say. Next time, I have a better time! Also next time, you are the confident dragoness, the happy dragoness. The better for both of us.”

“Still, thank you much…. get some oil and we’ll try it out.” I wasn’t actually eager to mate with him again — or anyone. I’d rather forget about that part of my body and my life entirely. I was trying to act brave and responsible, like someone could imagine that I’d be a 1/12-of-the-way decent wife.

“The cowards, you will remember them!”

“What?”

“The drakes who do not tell you the thing you need to know, who take their little pain and hide it. The drake who tells you, and lets you breathe your terrain-melting fires in his face to tell you more. Which drake is the mighty one, which is the brave one?”

“Well, if you phrase it that way,…”

“To me, you must not answer. To your little book where you write every day, there, you must think about what is the truth, and write it down, who is the better husband for you.”

So I will.

Coda: Judgment of the Day

I don’t like Tultamaan a bit, and I don’t really like Llredh that much either. But they had a lot of truth for me today. I should be a responsible dragoness and do what I’m here for, it’s not fair to any of the drakes if I don’t. And Osoth and Nrararn really should have told me. They were probably thinking of some sneaky way to let me know.

Maybe Osoth was going to animate a mummy of a legendary ancient courtesan to slip into my cave and offer me aromatic unguents of love, or something. Probably she’d have gotten the firebreath, not Llredh. But probably I’d have gotten the point… I hope.

But they didn’t get to do that. And Llredh did, and was pretty nice about it, and brave.

Is it OK if I give him some points, but still don’t really like him that much? He’s rather a vicious bully.

Coda: Scores

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 47 -2 45
Llredh 39 +5 44
Ythac 22 +1 23
Greshthanu 26 0 26
Osoth 20 -1 19
Nrararn 21 0 21
Tultamaan -7 -4 -11

Seduction of Ythac (Day 42)

Oil Quest

I didn’t take Llredh’s suggestion to have the drakes get me oil. Too embarrassing. I put on the Esrret-Sky-Painted, flew back to Drupe-ek-Kavash under cover of eclipse, and looted them myself. Drupe-ek-Kavash has three grocery stores. These are pretty unusual places, by my rather parochial Mhel-reared standards. I am used to a farmer’s market sort of place, a big public square where farmers (that means small people, of course. Dragons never go farming) bring their crops and sell them out of their carts, or piled in big pyramids on the stone benches.

Drupe-ek-Kavash doesn’t have that, probably because half of everyone is a farmer there. Instead it has a Magnificent Central Shopping District consisting of two blocks in the main street lined with shabby little stalls selling … well, in Mhelvul, they would be the most amazing wonders, but here they look somewhat battered and a little bit sad. One shop sells music. That’s music that’s been wrapped up and squished flat somehow and pressed into black circles. Which would be a most delectable wonder by itself, really. The music store keeps its music in battered dingy cardboard boxes with faded pictures of hovens with wearing Traditional Hoven Costumes using Traditional Hoven Instruments. Or maybe they’re radically unusual both, I don’t know. The cardboard boxes look so out of keeping with the miracles inside of them though.

I didn’t poke much at the music shop, just a little bit because it was so strange. I am a very practical dragonness. I went next door to Awolfo’s Fine Foods and Confectionary shop. The store was about as big as I am with my wings folded, so I turned into a hoven-sized verson of me. The store had a lame old hoven at the counter, who might never in a whole life have wished that he could run nearly as much as he could just then. A thousand scents prickled my tongue: spices, fermented vegetables, spices, preserved meats, spices, flour, alien candies, and spices. And, here and there, the sticky dull scent of old cooking oil — the treasure I sought!

Well, Awolfo wasn’t my hoven or anything, but he wasn’t anybody else’s either. No reason not to be polite. I asked him, “Hallo! Do you have any oil?”

He left off muttering his death-prayer, and blinked at me. “… Oil?”…”

“Yes. Slippery oil from seeds, that you can use for, um, making things slippery.” I was embarrassed. I am not used to buying marital supplies.

“Cooking oil? I have cooking oil. Groanseed oil, mustard-seed oil, ghee…”

“Whichever is the mildest,” I said. Mustard-seed oil doesn’t sound nice for unarmored bits of dragon. It would probably hurt the drakes more than dry dragoness, and maybe injure me too.

“That would be ghee. How much ghee would you like?” Awolfo waved his hand at a two-gallon metal box marked “Marthu-ek-Krasnou Brand Supremmly Pure GHEE” with a picture of a a rather ridiculous Hove-style cow painted next to it. It was spelled wrong, but it smelled right: rich and buttery and only the barest touch rancid.

“That should do nicely!” I flickered my tongue about, and thought that I might as well do some shopping for myself too. “Oh, and some spices. Can I have some spices?”

“Yes, yes, of course, I have spices, many spices…” He indicated three battered wooden shelves covered with bags and boxes and jars and jugs, with many assorted labels.

“Wonderful!” I had no idea what they tasted like, and with all the scents in the room it was hard to tell which one came from which box, so I picked a dozen at random. Then I smiled at him, and said, “I don’t have any money today.” Which wasn’t true, but I don’t have much of a hoard and don’t want to use it for things like this. And it’s not any kind of Hoven money. “But you can ask me a favor and if it’s quick I might do it.”

Awolfo looked at me, smelling that complicated mix of scared and brave and devious that small people sometimes smell when they’re trying to trick or exploit a dragon. “You’re the monster who ate chickens from Blemia the other day?”

“Across town from here? Yes, that’s me.”

“You spit fire?”

“Sure! Want something burned?”

“There’s a big new building on the edge of town. It’s got a blue roof. It’s marked ‘Trestean Occupation Forces.’ I wouldn’t miss it if it were gone.” His words were tinged with the rotten lavender of understatement. I didn’t think that was much of a trick or an exploitation.

“It’s a deal!” I politely snatched the can of ghee, collected my spices, and waddled outside. I turned into my real size, so that I could waddle more impressively hide my loot under my neck-scales and destroy the military base conveniently. One big fireball left the building burning nicely, with angry Trestean soldiers running around shooting inadequate weapons in my general direction. I decided that they were celebrating the liberation of Drupe-ek-Kavash, since Awolfo and his friends were. So I let them live, and flew home mostly wondering how I could use the ghee without my drake of choice — Csirnis? Ythac? — being any the wiser.

Approach to Ythac

“Ythac? Let’s go flying. Together, I mean,” I told him when I got back.

“Sure, why not?” he said. “Where?”

“Can you find us a nice canyon? Some privacy and some strong updrafts would be just the thing,” I said. You can’t get much more direct of an invitation than that.

He sighed, and cast a fancy finding spell. “Sure. River, or no river? The one with a river is a bit further.”

“The river might be a good idea, actually.” OK, that’s more direct.

We flew wingtips to wingtips, but without fouling each other, the way old friends do. More accurately, the way that dragons who have been flying alongside each other for duodecades do, but that’s pretty much the same thing.

“What did you think of Llredh?” he asked me.

“I was pleasantly surprised!” I said. “He’s a brute and a bully, but he was kind … helpful maybe I’d call it.”

“He didn’t say what you two did out in the desert,” said Ythac. “I was wondering if you’d really caught his interest.”

“Well, he worked a bit to catch my interest. By doing me a rather brutal, bullying sort of favor, I mean. And pointing out that Nrararn and Osoth were inferior to him in a surprising way.”

“So, does he want you instead of Arilash, do you think?”

I thought about that a bit. “I’d guess that he’s worried that Arilash will choose Csirnis, so he’s making sure he’s one of my especially suitors as well as one of hers.”

“Sensible of him,” said Ythac dully.

“Are you going to be one of my especially suitors too?” I asked him. “You’ve got special advantages over everyone else, if you want to use them.”

“I’m sure I’ll get into the style of it soon enough,” he said. “I’m not the very romantic dragon, nor the very aggressive one, nor the very lustful one really. I have to work hard for all of those.” He didn’t quite mention the mount-fighting, which sounded awfully aggressive and lustful to me, so I decided not to either.

“You’d be a really strong suitor if you wanted to try. You’re big and strong, even if you’re not the musclebound monster that Greshthanu is. You’ve got the cleverest magic of any of us, I think, with those supreme finding spells, and you’re even better with apotropaics than I am. You’ve got darkness breath as well as fire — that’s not like any of mine. And you’re familiar and comfortable to me. I might choose you over Csirnis even.”

“That’s really sweet of you, Jyothky,” he said, sounding a bit sad. “That is what my father wanted.” He grinned at me suddenly. “Have you ever tasted a bird killed by darkness breath?”

I know that he knows my secret weakness. (OK, everyone does. It’s not very secret. It’s not very weakness either.) I’m so glad he’s exploiting it. I’d hate for him not to get married because he didn’t like competing. I’m not quite sure what if he tries and loses, though.

Anyways, he breathed a needle of darkness on one of the scavenger birds. Not very many dragons study darkness breath. It’s not actually very effective. Fire’s best of course, very flexible and very destructive. Ythac has fire breath too for everyday use. Cold and lightning are popular alternatives. Cold’s not as destructive, which is good when you’re trying to kill the people and leave the priceless metal statues and rare books and plastic CD’s intact. Lightning is very sharp and very good at a distance, and, if you’re Nrararn, you can braid it into your mane. Darkness isn’t most of those. It only comes in a few shapes, like the line that Ythac used. It doesn’t go very far. It’s pretty easy for a small person sorcerer to block with a light spell. It’ll damage anything: it’ll leave flaws in metal statues and insert grammatical errors into the books and warp the CDs. Even dragons: it’ll leave any of dozens of minor medical problems which have to be dealt with individually over the next few weeks. It’s really not polite to use darkness breath on anydragon, unless you’ve got some quarrel with them already. Ythac used it dragons who teased him sometimes, and on his father a lot. He usually just uses fire breath like most people.

The bird died of course. Ythac dived, beating his blue-green wings hard, and picked it out of the air before either it or he hit the ground. I flew down more demurely. I don’t exactly understand the point of flying demurely after a drake whom one is engaged to and determined to seduce, but I did it anyways. He held the bird up. I snatched it out of his claws, landed on a patch of crazed crackled dry mud, and started nibbling.

“This is very odd, Ythac. It tastes a bit rotten already.”

“Darkness breath does that! Like it?”

“It’s savory!” I nibbled a bit more. “Not like your usual slightly rotten meat, either. The rotty bits aren’t just at the surface, they’re all scattered throughout. But they’re small, so it’s not like the whole thing is rotten. That would be a bit much.”

“Ever had anything like it?”

“Not with meat,” I said. Ythac looked proud. “Cheese, though. It’s like one of the very moldy cheese, with mold spread all the way through.” Ythac looked a bit disappointed. “Some of the best cheeses on Mhelvul were like that! Didn’t you ever have efforasze or neucca?”

“I don’t like mhelvul food very much,” he said.

“Well, I do. I don’t want to waste the senses I do have, y’know? They’re quite excellent cheese, and your darkened bird reminds me of them more than anything else. So I like it, and in a rather educated way.”

“Glad to hear it! I like it too. Llredh doesn’t much, he likes his food fresh. He challenges me every time I bring some dark-dead meat home.”

“You have done? It never got to the dragonesses.”

“The other drakes persuaded me you two wouldn’t like it. I should have known better.”

Ythac’s Proposition

We had just finished up a game of tsheriaf, burning lines and arcs in the side of some Khamrou or other. (We’d tied, 282 to 282, which is a rather good score in a two-player game, and ties are pretty rare too.)

I made sure I had my box of ghee. “Ythac? Would you like to mate with me now?”

One rarely sees a drake in the fullness of his power quite as terrified as Ythac was. “Actually, I was going to make maybe a better offer,” he said.

“Arilash wouldn’t admit that there was any better offer,” I said.

“Nor would Llredh. You and I know better, I think,” he answered.

“What’s your better offer? And why are you refusing copulation to a willing — indeed, an offering — dragoness?”

“Willing, yes. Offering, yes. Interested, no. My tongue is as keen as any dragon’s. I know the scent of an eager dragoness well enough — most of the drakes have been wearing it regularly, from Arilash. You are not eager. You are nervous. You are on the edge of scared. You are touchy. You are not eager,” he said.

“More than just a bit willing though. I’m really trying to behave properly. Well, maybe not for Tultamaan. Certainly for you, Ythac.” I made a mental note to wear a full suit of illusion spells, hiding scent and everything else.

“What makes you think I’m pleased to couple with a dragoness who doesn’t want me? My hemipenises are not in charge of me,” he said. “How about this: Marry me. We’ll promise to each other to have sex whenever we want… I mean, whenever either of us wants. Waiting ’til we both want at the same time would be a long wait indeed.”

“I’ll think about that in a dozen years,” I said. “For now, I’m going to try not to be insulted. It’s hard work.”

“I apologize for not pressing you to do something you obviously don’t want to do, and are only offering because your parents and Arilash and Tultamaan think you should,” he said. “And yes, I’m offering to stand by you against any or all of them.”

“That is very sweet of you. So sweet that I’m going to go melt another mountain,” I said. I started flying towards a likely-looking peak. Ythac tried to follow me, but I spattered lightning off his apotropaic spells. “Don’t you dare follow me.”

He tried to apologize some more.

“Don’t you dare apologize to me either. I accept your apology completely. Effective as of, oh, eclipse tomorrow.” I flew off, alone, though Ythac’s scrying spells whispered lavenderly around me. I snarled to them, “I am not going to get in trouble.” He didn’t stop watching though. I suppose that’s a good thing.

Let’s see. The Khamrou range has some eight hundred and twenty peaks. If I am really going to go through two a month, that’s two hundred eighty-eight by the end of the mating flight. There’ll be a lot left. No problem. No problem at all.

Unless someone else gets annoyed too, that is.

Coda: Scores

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 45 +1 46
Llredh 44 0 44
Ythac 23 +1 24
Greshthanu 26 +1 27
Osoth 19 0 19
Nrararn 21 +1 22
Tultamaan -11 0 -11

Re-Seduction of Csirnis (Day 43)

This morning I sort of snuck out of my cave in case Tultamaan was lurking in wait for me, which he wasn’t, and then crept outside the drake’s cave and lurked in wait for Csirnis. Which meant conversations with Ythac, Osoth, and Greshthanu, of the form “Good morning, Jyothky, what are you doing now?” — “I’m lurking.” — “Right. Happy lurking!” Or, “Whatever for?”, followed by me looking trying to look simultaneous mysterious, responsible, and elegant. I had better grow two more heads if I’m going to pull that off.

(That’s not a bad idea actually — maybe I’ll do it. It takes a couple weeks to get used to multiple heads though. Maybe I’ll be hideously annoyed with everyone and want to spend that long away from them, and can stomp off to a different corner of the desert and practice seeing everything from three sides for long enough so I don’t run into things and trip over my own feet constantly. Also the thought of watching myself eat is oddly disturbing, I don’t know why. I don’t like having a mirror at table, either, for what that’s worth.)

I prepared a very elegant and eloquent proposition for that most elegant of drakes. It was full of courtly language, and it had three internal rhymes, and enough fancy vocabulary that it looked as if Osoth had helped me write it. I rolled it over and over in my head, and it was delightful.

Finally Csirnis glided out. Yes, he glides when he walks. I don’t know how he does it — he’s only got four legs most of the time.

“Good morning, Csirnis!”

He looked amused in a generally dignified way. “Good morning, Jyothky. What brings you to the drake’s cave so early?”

My whole elegant and eloquent proposition fell apart. It came out something like, “Let’s … us … I mean, you and me … and a desert … there…”

He smiled anyways. “I take it today is my turn?” I nodded with all available elegance and eloquence. He continued, “At the top of Khamrou Elephantodontou is a pleasant spring set about with aromatic afhtherias trees. There, let me give you my love.” He can do elegance and eloquence on a moment’s notice and only half a night’s sleep.

As Csirnis and I flew out, Osoth muttered to Nrararn, “We had been lucky up to now. No more.” Nrararn lashed the ground with his tail.

At the top of Khamrou Elephantodontou, the tallest and whitest and shiniest of the Khamrou Voresc range, there was indeed a pleasant spring, a round bathtub of a spring, warm water bubbling through smooth white pebbles. Lazy orange fish swam there, and a pair of ducks that flew off when we landed. The afhtherias trees filled the air with the scent of sweet resin, and amid their roots star-shaped white flowers bloomed, and rendered the place exceedingly romantic. Of course, a few big clawprints in the grass showed that the romance had already been tested and confirmed.

I flickered my shape around and took out the cubical box of ghee.

“Oh, no, I do not imagine that we will need that,” said Csirnis.

“You know what it’s for?” I mumbled.

“Certain technical details have gotten around among the drakes, I’m afraid,” he said. “But today we may set them aside.”

“Well …it’s your hemipenises in danger,” I said. “Ready?” I crouched to take off, and spread my claspers.

His eyes twinkled. “Let us not be quite so swift. We are not fleeing from warplanes and an artillery barrage here!”

So he wasn’t quite so swift. He danced for me, coiling and twirling in the lower air, and if he didn’t have Nrararn’s perfect sky-mage’s mobility, he had far more grace. Then he called to me and we danced together. I don’t have either the mobility or the grace, but he had enough for two: he taught me a Chiriact court dance for one slow and one fast dragon.

Then we lay by the bank of the pond. “Let me please the senses you have,” he said. We kissed and breathed careful fire and lightning into each other’s mouths, pouring the strength of his whefô into mine and mine into his, which is really delightful. You do have to do it right, or it turns into a very painful attack. I wouldn’t do it with Llredh, say, but this was Csirnis.

(Aside: I am actually more powerful of whefô than Csirnis, though not by much. It’s not that he’s absolutely the best of us at absolutely everything — Llredh beats him in fights often enough, Greshthanu sometimes, and even Nrararn did once or twice, Osoth and Nrararn and Ythac are better sorcerers, and I’m better at breath, and I guess Arilash is the better lover. He’s just a very close second-best at everything that he’s not the best at, and he’s utterly beautiful about it.)

And Csirnis broke some pods of spice-seeds on his belly, enhancing his natural scent just the right way, and we spent some long time smelling and tasting each other. Yum, beautiful musky boy!

Finally he leapt into the air and beckoned for me to follow, and we mated in the sky, and everything on my body worked the way it’s supposed to. Without extraneous additions of ghee, or even needing to consciously spread my claspers. I actually felt like a grown-up dragoness for once.

Well. Everything worked except the parts of me that never work. Csirnis was well-satisfied, by the sight and scent of his body at least. I don’t get any such satisfaction. He had managed to tell my body that there was a beautiful, agreeable drake around, but my body couldn’t tell that she’d actually had him.

So we splashed in the pool to clean off — even washing in water is somehow an elegant joy with Csirnis. Then we sprawled in the hot sunlight and I made him tell me about Chiriact’s court politics until my body gave up on the beautiful agreeable drake that she knew was somewhere around and folded my claspers and grumbled quietly.

Well, it was a very romantic morning, anyways.

The Aftermath

For the rest of the afternoon, whenever anyone held a wing to me, I bit it off. Well, mostly just metaphorically. I didn’t mean to. It went a lot like the day I laid my egg. My body knew that something had happened, or should have happened and didn’t, and that meant I needed to be a vicious berserk monster even if I’d rather not have been.

Dealing with Osoth

In the early afternoon, Osoth flew from roughly Ghemel-wards with a fat and wooly quadruped in his mouth. He dropped it in the red Khamrou sand at my feet, and proclaimed in a rotund voice, “O my fiancée, whose wingtips are the pinnate delights which tickle at the battlements of my soul, behold! An ovine tenderment for your delectation!”

So I bit his cheek.

“Jyothky? Why did you bite my cheek?” He sounded rather perplexed as he healed his face. “Why does bringing brawny bellwether embitter you?”

“You dropped it in the sand!”

“Yes, truly, some of the fragmentary grindments of the mighty Khamrou range do now cling to its sorry mortling. And although I am mightier in the arts necromantic than the arts gastronomic, in this instance, the domains of the two intersect! Observe!” He dripped three words of mercury upon the sheep’s head, each one so heavy that the carcase shuddered beneath it, and then it rose up and did obeisance to Osoth. He commanded it, “Clean yourself, render yourself a suitable treat for yon dragoness!” It stumbled off miserably to the river.

“Now I’m going to have a wet sheep to eat. A sad wet sheep. It’ll probably be treading little circles in my gut,” I said.

“Should you choose to partake of it with the volcanic embellishment that your nigh-achromatic and octo-antlered dearling can provide, it will prove less than wholly humectant. Should you choose precede your meal with a slightly-nontraditional but nonetheless benedictive benediction, it will prove less than wholly animate. Or you can whack it with your vô.”

So I bit him again. He tried to get away this time, and I just got his left forewing.

He took several steps backwards. “Perhaps a different repast would be more to your taste today. Perhaps a different drake would be the one to fetch it.”

I struck at him again, but only to heal his forewing. “I’m sorry, Osoth. I’m being hideously ungracious.”

“Self-knowledge is the root of all virtue, according to St. Ovolo,” said Osoth.

He had just said ‘yes’. Biting him again would have been tantamount to declaring him my enemy for life, and I was pretty sure I’d regret doing that. Especially since he’d just agreed with me. “Who’s St. Ovolo?” I asked.

“A local religious figure of considerable significance to hovens. A dispenser of wisdom, often in the form of aphorisms which the dull-minded might easily swallow.”

“Oh … well, thank you for lunch, and I’m sorry I bit you.”

He stepped back a dozen paces, and arched his head high. “Do you refer to the initial or the terminal bite? Hoping, indeed, that it is terminal, and not medial.”

“Both, really. You didn’t deserve them.”

“As a matter of policy, I would generally refrain from disputing against you in matters of simple opinion. In this instance, I do not merely refrain passively. My refrainder is active, dynamic, tumultuous!” Which is about as close as low-ranked Osoth can come to scolding a dragoness on a mating flight.

So I apologied some more at him, and took a bite of sheep. Raw wet zombie sheep, since we’d both forgotten about cooking and disenchanting it. So I accepted his gift and was not in the slightest trying to kick him out of the mating flight. When he saw that, he flew off. He didn’t much want to be around for my occasional terrible mood.

I didn’t much blame him. If I could have avoided being around me for the rest of the day, I would have done.

Dealing with Arilash

I slunk back into the cave. Arilash curled her tail around her forepaws tightly to emphasize that she was trying to be harmless. “There’s a trail of wounded drakes from here to Chiaract tonight. Did it go badly with Csirnis?”

“It. Went. Excellently. With. Csirnis.” I said. “And you are not going to score any fiancée points off of me today.”

So help me, she turned into a camel. “I’m not trying to. Maybe we can have a truce for the evening?”

Well, I outfoxed her. “I’ll challenge you. You win, you get to declare a truce,” I said.

“If you like, OK. Just a Babble of Raises, though,” she said, and turned back into a dull tan monster half again as big as I am. I guessed wrong about how she was tilting the Small Wall, and my lightning slipped off of it and ruined Murghal’s poster of a famous Ghemelian movie star or something. Claw that the Small Wall, it’s not even good at not being very good sometimes.

Arilash and I swatted at each other a few times. Then she said, “You’re bleeding.”

I flicked my tongue out, and smelled dragon blood. “You mean to say ‘I hit you, and I win.’ Don’t go saying ‘You’re bleeding’ and avoiding the point.”

So she put the Put-Together-Now into me, presumably on where she had clawed me. I hissed at her, “This isn’t a Caramelle. Or whatever a Caramelle to one touch is called. It’s a Babble of Raises, and it’s over, and you won, and can I be done with today yet?”

“Some days you’re just impossible to make peace with, Jyothky,” she said. “But I do declare that truce for the rest of the night.”

“We both know who’s coming in first. I don’t want to come in last, is all,” I said. “I’ve got to keep fighting you to show my indomitable spirit. Even if I keep losing.”

“Can’t I say that I’m so impressed by your indomitable spirit that I don’t want to fight you any more?” she asked.

“That only leaves the sex contests, and you win all of those,” I pointed out.

She rolled on her side, and folded her wings demurely around herself. “You certainly seem to have gotten thumped on that score thoroughly today, by how you’re acting. What happened? Csirnis hinted that it was a quite respectable entry in the sex contests, suitably handicapped.”

So I let her read today’s entry.

She unaccountably said, “Oh, you’re just like me that way.”

“Not likely.”

“I get pretty irritable if I get too much flirted at, and don’t bring matters to a suitable conclusion,” she said. “I have to be pretty careful sometimes. There was one drake in Fohhona — did you ever meet Ressal?”

“I’ve only been to Fohhona about three days, and with one parent hanging on each hindwing all the time to keep me innocent,” I said.

“Pity, it’s a fun place. Anyways, Ressal is as pretty and as hot as an explosion of brightly-colored chili peppers, and he’s the sweetest, kindest drake you’ll ever meet. But he is utterly unable to satisfy a dragoness. His largest hemipenis lasts for three heartbeats, not three hours like it should.”

“He wasn’t ever going to be our fiancé,” I mumbled.

“Which loses me a great many fiancée points with anyone who cares about purity. It sure did with Roroko! Osoth and I think Csirnis care about it pretty much too, so you’re inevitably the victor in that part of the contest.”

“For whatever that’s worth,” I mumbled. It’s embarrassing about three ways to hear her talk about that.

“For whatever that’s worth. Anyways, Ressal and I would flirt and play tsheriaf and make love badly and then go to one of the roasting pits for dinner, and next thing you know I’m screaming at him about how awful he is, or biting the drake at the next bench for eating too loudly, or writing another angry letter to my mother about how she treated me.”

“All at once?”

She giggled. “No, a different way on each date. On the fourth date, I got smarter. I pleasured myself thoroughly and made him watch, and then coupled with him. And then didn’t bite anyone.”

“Lucky dragoness. I’ve never managed to do that either, I don’t think.”

She laughed. “I could help, if you wanted … Hey, we’ve got a truce ’til dawn!” We did, too, so I didn’t breathe at her.

“No. Never. Is there any other way to be less cross afterwards? It’s almost as bad as when I’m laying an egg,” I said.

“Take a bath, perhaps. Or just go to sleep.”

I glared in the direction of the river. “Sleep.”

She smiled at me. “Yes, sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning. And, for what it’s worth, Csirnis said he had a very pleasant time with you.”

“Oh. What do the other drakes say?”

“The twins don’t say anything,” she said. I blinked at her a bit. “Osoth and Nrararn, I mean. Llredh gave details in a triumphant sort of way.”

“I wish he wouldn’t have.”

“And Tultamaan was very oblique,” Arilash said.

“I didn’t even couple with Tultamaan yet,” I mumbled.

“You didn’t?” Arilash crossed her eyes. “I suppose he didn’t exactly say that you did. He just Insinuated Things and Lead Me To The Wrong Conclusion.” She hissed. “Well, you’re not missing much. He’s better than Ressal, by a lot, and very enthusiastic in a completely self-centered way. Afterwards he whines about anything you said or did that wasn’t utterly flattering or directed purely at him. I enjoyed Ressal a lot more, all in all. Once I figured out how to use Ressal properly.”

“You’ve had so many adventures. How are you going to manage to settle down to be a reasonable wife for someone?” I asked. I wanted to score some fiancée points.

“I don’t know,” she said, with a bit of darkness in her voice. “I’ll figure that out when the time comes. For now, maybe, time to sleep?”

“Right.” I stuck my head under my wing and was asleep before you could count to twelve grand, if you counted slowly.

Maybe I should marry the drake I like the least, ’cause the married part of marriage is going to be pretty miserable.

Xolgrohim thought that might be a good idea too. I can’t imagine that any of the drakes would be really happy with me as a wife. (Better than nothing? Possibly, if I work really hard. Better than being an eternal bachelor in Fohhona’s fleshpots? I doubt that.) If I can’t come up with an actually happy marriage, maybe getting someone I can fight with a lot would be a good choice. Fighting’s worthwhile, isn’t it?

Coda: Scores

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 46 +5 51
Llredh 44 0 44
Ythac 24 +1 25
Greshthanu 27 0 27
Osoth 19 0 19
Nrararn 22 -1 21
Tultamaan -11 -1 -12

Seduction of Greshthanu (Day 44)

I was feeling fairly confident and reasonably happy the next morning as I circled around over the drakes and picked my quarry. “Hey, Greshthanu! Come mate with me!”

He looked up at me, and shouted, “What? No!”

I was so surprised, I nearly forgot to beat my wings. “What?

“I said ‘no’,” said Greshthanu in Mhelvian. “In Grand Draconic that’s ‘eill’, and in Ghemelian it’s ‘vask’. If you’d asked me me in the polite register it would be ‘wo diau vasku skan’, which is to say, ‘No thank you’.”

“But … last year you were trying to get me to.” I circled lower, and Ythac and Osoth made space for me to land.

“And you said ‘no’,” said Greshthanu.

“Because it was before the mating flight started!” I protested.

“That didn’t bother anyone else,” hissed Greshthanu.

“Even Roroku?” chirped Arilash.

“The basics, she learned them from Greshthanu or before,” said Llredh. “The advanced lessons, she learned one or two from me.”

“That hypocritical little lobster!” said Arilash. “How dare she insult me for doing it if she was too?”

“Well, she mostly mated with us,” said Greshthanu. “Not often a drake she wasn’t engaged to, and no dragonesses or small people.”

I spat lightning and scored Greshthanu’s face a bit. “Stop changing the subject. So now when it’s legitimate, you’re turning me down? Do you actually expect to have a chance to get married if you behave that way?”

“I wouldn’t want to marry a dragon who behaves the way you do!” he said. The other drakes mostly smirked at each other, except for Csirnis who simply looked concerned.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I whined.

“Do you remember Drupe-ek-Kavash?” he hissed.

“A hoven village, over there.”

“Exactly. The other day you went raiding. Wrongth the first: you went raiding. Not a drake, but a dragoness. Actually that isn’t the first wrongth you’ve wronged on this flight — you started out fighting me, as you surely remember!”

“I needed something. Something personal,” I said. “I wanted to be private about it.” Some of the dragons sniggered, and the rest pretended that they didn’t want to. My ‘private’ wasn’t very private.

“Wrongth the second: you paid for it. You did not actually go raiding, you went shopping. Wrongth the third: you overpaid for it. You make us all look like fools,” he said. Several of the drakes were nodding in agreement.

“Wrongth the most! You paid for it by burning a Trestean army station. And how very, very wrong that is! You killed two Trestean soldiers — or, rather, one medical assistant and one clerk. Also one Ghemelian sweeper they had employed,” Greshthanu declaimed. Yes, he half-spread his wings and raised his head high as if he were reciting something formally.

“So what? They don’t belong to anydragon,” I said. Several of the drakes nodded to that too, so I wasn’t totally without allies.

“Exactly. That is exactly the sort of thing that I despise the most about you.” Which got Greshthanu a few hisses. “You killed three small people for no good reason and you don’t even care a bit.”

“I wasn’t trying to kill them,” I said. “I don’t go rampaging and destroying for fun.” Llredh and Tultamaan glared at me. They sometimes rampage for fun, I think.

“You certainly weren’t overly concerned for their safety! You breathed a great big fireball on their building!” shouted Greshthanu.

“What, are you the Defender of All Hovens now?” There was much laughter from all the others, at both of us pretty equally.

“I care about basic ethical standards! Murder for no good reason is a wickedness! Buying a bit of ghee for three hoven lives is a wicked waste and a wicked imbalance!”

“I don’t have to answer to you about how it!” I said. Which was a pretty feeble answer, but my moral position was pretty feeble.

“I dread what would happen if you wanted a whole meal of roast camel! You would lay waste to all Ghemelia!” crowed Greshthanu. Everyone else laughed.

“And with Jyothky’s gourmet tastes … you’d better loot the place before she gets hungry!” said Arilash.

Good: Arilash was taking me seriously and having a contest with me.

Bad: She’d won it.

Nrararn followed me on wings of wild wind as I fled. “Jyothky, Jyothky, come back, stop!”

After a while, I did. “I should just go home, shouldn’t I? Or find a spare corner of Hove on the other side of the Godaxle.”

“No, no, nothing like that. Greshthanu is just being a blockhead. He’s always going off on crazy tangents and stupid enthusiasms like that. Nobody takes him very seriously,” said Nrararn.

“Well, he’s right about this one. I killed three hovens for two gallons of ghee and a pawful of spices,” I said.

“That’s maybe a bit much — but that’s a blockhead way to look at it. You helped the native peoples strike back against the occupying invaders,” Nrararn said calmly. “It’s not as if you raided the grocer and slaughtered all the hovens who stood in your way. That would be excessive. Helping free the country we landed in — not so excessive. I could imagine we’d decide to do that for some reason, and for less profit than some ghee.”

“That’s comforting. Not exactly true though, since I wasn’t that conscientious about it,” I said.

“Good enough for everyone but Greshthanu, I think. Even Csirnis wasn’t too disturbed by it,” said Nrararn. “And I don’t think Greshthanu is exactly your best choice.” Comforting, and still managing to be competitive, is my clever little Nrararn.

“Not my best choice for today,” I said.

Nrararn smiled at me, and half-spread his wings, and radiated sparks of lightning.

“OK. You are. But you’d better use the ghee. It’s ripped from the bleeding heart of Ghemelia. I spilled oceans of blood to get it, and duelled the great beast, and won,” I said. “So I hope you like it.”

He giggled, and took the can from me, and poured a bit carefully on himself.

It works fine.

And if I’m miserable when I start instead of excited, my senseless feelless numb body doesn’t realize there’s even a pretty boy drake to pay attention to, and so I’m morose at everyone instead of horrible afterwards. Even Xolgrohim couldn’t cheer me up very much. Probably this is an improvement.

I really wish this mating flight were over.

Coda: Scores

Every drake who didn’t come to comfort me gets -4! (If I were keeping score on me, I’d get about a -12.)

Fiancé Last Time Change This Time
Csirnis 51 -4 47
Llredh 44 -4 40
Ythac 25 -4 21
Greshthanu 27 -8 19
Osoth 19 -4 15
Nrararn 21 +1 22
Tultamaan -12 -4 -16

Hide and Seek (Day 45)

Llredh and Arilash started it, I suppose. They’re usually pretty noisy together. These noises weren’t their usual happy ones though. They were the crash of claws on scales, the roaring rush of firebreath, the hideous crunch as fangs ravaging bones. I peeked out of the cave. Llredh was on top of Arilash, ripping up her left forewing. She was blasting him uselessly with flames, squarely in the center of his Small Wall, and rather more effectively raking him with her hindclaws. They were far past a Caramelle, or even a Tea for Disharmony, and they stunk of rage.

I breathed my sharpest lightning at Llredh’s flank, under his wing, at the edge of his Small Wall. That charred his scales nicely.

Llredh thoroughly glared at me for that. “Jyothky! The great mistake, again she comes on you! By mistake it is a boy you fight as! So little do you copulate, you forget which genitalia you have!”

So I froze his face with cold breath for that. He winced and shook his head. Arilash sank her fangs into his throat and shook him viciously. He turned into an owl to escape her hold. Her heart beat, and she breathed fire on him as he fled to the other side of the river. Both dragons sat and started healing themselves, glaring at each other.

“You looked like you needed a rescue there, Arilash,” I said, trying to get some manners back into the situation.

She glared at me. “I need a rescue from all these dungs of dominance contests. Llredh I can deal with on my own.”

“Deal with by letting me break your wings!” Llredh hooted.

“That’s one approach,” I said.

“Stop teasing me or I’ll crunch your no-sanitary-accidents spell while you’re sleeping and you’ll poop on Csirnis’ foot and he’ll never look at you again without laughing,” she said with a snarl.

‘I am not so rude as that,” said Csirnis in a huff. Most of the drakes had come out of their cave by now.

“What’s going on here now? The dragonesses are all snarly, but Llredh, not Jyothky, is the injuredmost one,” asked Tultamaan.

“Llredh was being pretty insulting. Not that he’s ever exactly pleasant, but telling a girl that she’s the worst lover in the mating flight while your hemipenis is actually in her —– that’s an amazing display of manners.”

“And dead wrong!” chirped Greshthanu.

“How would you know?” I roared at him. “You didn’t compare!”

“Llredh, Arilash, you should not be fighting. Arilash, you are a girl. You may fight with Jyothky all you wish, and that is all. Llredh, you are technically a boy. You have five or six choices of combatants, but Arilash is not one of them,” said Csirnis in his prissiest voice.

So they both puffed flame at him.

Then there was rather a mêlée. I’m not quite sure who attacked who, exactly. Osoth was mostly defending me, which was very sweet of him, but not enough to keep Greshthanu from opening my flank a foot deep from ribs to tail. Most of us got at least one wound like that.

Then we sat around healing ourselves and snarling at each other.

“This is the worst mating flight ever,” moaned Ythac.

“This is utterly standard,” said Nrararn. “Most mating flights get quarrelsome after a few weeks in.”

Arilash snorted sparks. “Which you know because of your extensive experience of … what?”

“I brought both books on mating flights,” said Nrararn.

“He’s right, you know, or at least a Very Crude Approximation of Right. Though we are being Less Congenial than is Typical. Which I know from My Extensive Experience on Two Other Mating Flights,” said Tultamaan.

“Fine. He knows everything, I’m just an ignorant swamp-dragon, I’m sure not marrying him or you either,” said Arilash. “What do your stupid books say we should do about it?”

“Take a vacation from it. And have the mating flight in a place where there’s something else interesting to do. If even the lumpish and stultified Llredh is getting aggressive, we know we need more diversions than each other,” said Nrararn.

Once Llredh had been prevented from ripping Nrararn’s leg off from the insult, we made some actual plans. We’re going to play Hide And Seek, with a quest. Ythac — he’s Seek — will stay here for a day in the caves. The rest of us will scatter as we wish. Then Ythac will go find us. We picked Ythac because he actually can find us with sorcery, if he wants and if we let him. He’s supposed to use lesser means for the first three weeks.

And the quest is to find somewhere good to spend the rest of the mating flight. A nice big island, maybe, with a pleasant and luxury-loving hoven nation that we can lightly conquer and use as our holiday resort for a dozen years. Somewhere with an intricate and exciting cuisine (me), a rich and extensive dramaturgical tradition (Nrararn), an infestation of poisonous insects (Llredh), an ancient history and lots of dead people (Osoth), and so on. Or the best we can find.

I’m going to disguise myself as a hoven and do some exploring.

Coda: My Score

Since the hide-and-seek begins tomorrow, and nobody feels like talking to anybody tonight, and some of the drakes aren’t very cooperative, I’m not going to get to my plan to couple once with each of the drakes except Tultamaan this week. Still, I think I did pretty well on it. I got half of them. And less than half of the encounters were completely miserable or humiliating or spirit-wrecking. If you don’t count the ones that ended up miserable after the deed was actually done, I mean.

I guess that’s not really a good score after all. I’m definitely better off alone.

Coda: Scores

I don’t want to do scores. Everyone comes in dead last, and especially me.

Hiding (Day 46)

I’m a hoven!

Well, I was for a lot of the day, I’m a mouse at the moment.

Specifically I’ve been a girl hoven with dim red fur and a couple changes of outfit. And not a lot of luggage, considering how far I’ve been travelling. Also not a whole lot of awareness of geography, or customs of how one buys a zeppelin ticket, or any number of other things that a supposed world-traveller might be expected to know. If the hovens suspected that terrible monsters from another world walked in disguse amongst them, I’d have been the first one they’d finger. They haven’t figured that out yet.

Staying in Ghemelia didn’t sound good. Not to me, not to anyone. The place is a pile of turmoils, and the sophisticated pleasures it offers are probably gobbling down food in a restaurant and hoping to finish the meal before some militia or other explodes the place. We’d probably end up battling the entire Trestean army before we were done. Which would be fine if we were here for exercise, and necessary if we were here for conquering, but would be much more of a distraction from our actual purpose. Of course the whole Hide And Seek game is a distraction from our actual purpose too, but it’s just a temporary and much-needed break.

I decided to go to Trest. That’s the worst choice for finding a small isolated island for us to enjoy — see “battling the entire Trestean army” — but it’s likely the most civilized place in Hove. And it’s a reasonably sophisticated world, with zeppelins and theatres and such. We could probably import some civilization to our presumed island paradise, if we didn’t mind breathing money at hovens. If we had any money, I mean. I’m sure we could get some somehow or other if we wanted it.

Trest isn’t that far away by dragon wings. But I could see Arilash poking around an archipelago from quite a ways off. (She’s good at grownup travel magic. She got there before I even made it as far as Ghemel.) Ythac has better eyes than me, and he’s probably watching, so I didn’t want to fly with dragon wings. The Esrret-Sky-Painted would keep him from seeing me very well, but leave an astral track that he could follow later. And he’s devious.

I’m a very lazy dragoness. I didn’t want to fly that far with seagull wings either.

So I went to Ghemel Airport to take a zeppelin. Yay, zeppelin!

Ghemel Airport

Specifically, I flew to Ghemel with Llredh. The fighter planes came for us. We (mostly Llredh) burned one up, and dived into some trees, and turned into starlings, and flew off separately. I think he went to the harbor.

The airport was full of soldiers. Trestean soldiers in sand-colored uniforms armed with ray guns and hatchets, and Ghemelian soldiers in bright red uniforms with the same sort of bullet guns that the farmers had shot me with, only a bit less battered. I took the opportunity to land on a Trestean’s head and learn Trestean. They smelled very nervous when I got there, and very nervous and very angry a few minutes later as the news of Llredh burning a fighter plane spread. They didn’t pay any attention to a starling skittering overhead, over their ridiculous fences, and onto the wide paved field.

Three zeppelins swayed in the hot winds, tethered at the tops of three narrow ziggurats. I darted into the shadows of a staircase on one ziggurat, turned into a hoven woman in heavy purple indistinct Ghemelian-style robes with mismatched sandals, and climbed to the top. A Trestean soldier glared at me from the gently bobbling open hatch.

“I’d like to buy a ticket to Trest,” I told him.

“You’d what?” he asked.

“I’d like to buy a ticket to fly to Trest. On that zeppelin.”

“That is so wrong I don’t know where to begin. This zeppelin isn’t going to Trest. It’s a semi-local military transport, you don’t just buy tickets on it. You don’t buy tickets on it at all, you’re Ghemelian not Trestean.”

“Well, which one is going to Trest?” I asked.

It sounded like a reasonable question to me. The soldier didn’t like it very much. He pointed his ray gun at me, and said “You stay there, girlie. I’m going to call Ground Security, they’ll come and check you out.” He stepped over to a big brass cylinder with intricate controls, and started doing intricate things to it.

Well, that was annoying. I brushed the soldier with my hukuchô. His fur went flat, and his hands trembled on the controls, but he didn’t flee. Trestean military discipline is impressive. I spat careful lightning at him, ruining his ray gun, breaking his discipline, and sending him screaming into the depths of the zeppelin. Oh, and saving his life. If he’d attacked me, I’d have had to kill him.

So, that was the wrong zeppelin and the wrong approach. I shifted around a bit, until I looked a lot more Trestean — matching my coloration and fur to the soldier’s, and copying his uniform. I strode down the ziggurat’s sandstone staircase and marched crisply across to the next one.

The soldier there wasn’t quite as brusque to one of his own kind. He peered at my badge, copied from the soldier at the first zeppelin. “What can I do for you, Guardswoman Tweenpo?”

I peered at his badge too. “Does this go to Trest, Guardsman Gordome?”

“Churry City. May I see your paperwork?”

Well, of course he couldn’t see my paperwork, I hadn’t any paperwork. I came out with something like “My … I … I don’t … never …”

Guardsman Gordome appeared unpersuaded by my draconic eloquence. “Guardswoman? Perhaps you could go back to your commanding officer and correct what is obviously a simple misunderstanding in a situation that could not possibly cause any trouble and under no circumstances could possibly be confused with attempted desertion?” He was clearly lying.

Bursting out laughing wasn’t the right thing to do, really. Neither was saying, “You think I’m deserting?

He looked a bit annoyed. “May I please see your identification papers, Guardswoman? Just a formality. You know the drill. I’d really rather not cause you any more trouble than the rules require.” He was telling the truth that time.

“Don’t be silly,” I said, forgetting, for a moment, that dragons had not been ruling Hove for grosses of years, and that I didn’t look like a dragon in any case.

Gordome looked a bit upset. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m going to have to take you into custody if you don’t show me your identification papers.” Also truthful.

I wanted to be taken to Churry City, wherever that was, not custody. But he had been polite and helpful. So I took his ray gun away from him and smashed it, and picked him up and wrapped him in some ropes and tossed him on a couch. Small people are all very slow and weak really. I’m rather slow and weak when I’m being a small person, but not as slow and weak as real small people.

And then I scampered through the canvas room to the door to the zeppelin’s gondola. I dived under the nearest sofa, hoped that nobody could see me very well, and turned into a mouse.

If considered as a way to get aboard a zeppelin and hide, this plan worked brilliantly. If considered as a way to get to Trest quickly, it didn’t. The Tresteans delayed the zeppelin for several hours as they looked everywhere on it (and the first one, I suppose), repeatedly, for their intruder. They saw me repeatedly, but they were looking for a hoven, not a mouse.

Eventually they gave up, and sent the zeppelin off. All the officers on board were nervous, wondering if the dangerous intruder had somehow managed to stay on board (yes, she had) and whether she would do something dastardly (yes, she took a dastardly nap). They were expecting something rather worse, like having her ignite herself and the zeppelin as well. (Which makes no sense — such a roundabout way of a suicide. There aren’t any dragons around to help her do it elegantly, but there must be, oh, poison. Or maybe she could shoot herself with a ray gun. Well, in this case she wasn’t suicidal or murderous, just a dastardly, dastardly stowaway.)

I peeked out from under the sofa, because the gondola was really quite pretty. It was a long narrow room of polished wood, polished brass, polished leather. Seats lined the walls, comfortable-looking leather chairs, bolted to the floor. Windows lined both sides of the gondola, and gleaming brass tubes were mounted on both sides. When we were finally flying, the officers — the passengers were mostly officers of Trest — would peer through them now and again and say things like “There’s Mount Malacha!” or “I believe we’re passing over Esbaril,” so I suppose they were some sort of technological vision enhancer, telescopes or something.

The trip took, roughly, forever. Nearly two days. We were, at least, the farthest off the ground that I have ever been: the zeppelin steered straight from Ghemel to Churry City. The officers slept in their leather chairs at night, and gambled and traded stories during the daytime, and complained that the buffet in the zeppelin galley was worse than usual. I stayed under my chair, and exchanged catty notes about the other fiancés with Ythac when I got bored (and probably gave him enough clues to find me, by the end of it, but I tried not to), and wondered if I could get away with eating the entire buffet or if the officers would notice that. It seemed best to wait.

The Best Food On Hove (so far) (Day 48)

Churry City turned out not to be Churry City. The zeppelin floated down to a stout metal and wood tower some miles away from the actual city, in a zeppelin-field in the middle of a town of brutal barracks and hangers. Trestean soldiers walked this way and that, practicing looking menacing, preparing for going to Ghemelia. The officers rushed off the zeppelin, glad to be less cramped, glad to have survived, glad to meet their waiting wives and husbands or whoever.

Nobody was waiting for me. Which was good — I was half expecting Ythac to tag me as I came off the zeppelin. He didn’t, though.

«How’s the game going? Caught anyone yet?» I asked him.

«I found Osoth in the Prevalian Catacombs, some hoven religious archaeological site, but that’s so easy a victory it barely counts,» he wrote back. «I haven’t been rushing. Solitude is so nice now and then.»

«Solitude with the necromancer of your dreams, even better?»

«Jyothky, please don’t start on that. Everybody else nips me all the time, and I wish you wouldn’t.»

«Sorry, sorry! I like Osoth fairly well, even if he does talk very oddly.»

«I forgive you. But I am going to go stuff Osoth back in his catacombs and enjoy more solitude. Then I’ll hunt a deer down and not share it with any dragonesses.»

Having unaccountably offended my best friend, I decided that I, too, should hunt something down and not share it. Ythac was being sneaky suggesting deer though. I’d have to be very careful not to be seen from above — well, from the side. Ythac was over there in the middle sky, or on the ground past the middle sky. A few minutes later I could see him, or some dragon anyways, flying across a forest and breathing fire. I suspect that a hoven with a telescope could see him too.

So, I turned into a crow and tried to find a large animal that couldn’t be seen from above. By looking for one, from above. As I am an extraordinarily mighty huntress and supremely skilled in the ways of the taking of prey, it took me rather a long time.

The beast I found wasn’t quite a cow, but I’ll call it that anyways because the real name is “vask” in Trestean, which means “no” in Ghemelian and I’m more used to Ghemelian today. It had a single big teat for an udder, and it was a bit on the small side and a bit on the male side as cows go. It was in a barn at least, a big hot wooden barn with a sheet-metal roof and space for thirty cows its size. Or one dead cow and one dragon. I grilled it a bit with fire breath, and seasoned it poorly with a handful of dry clover from a haystack, and it was the best thing I had eaten in two days.

Halfway through my meal, a farmer peeked into the barn. He inspected me. I waved a forepaw at him. He tiptoed out.

A few minutes later, he was back with five other farmers. Most of them were armed with tiny little rifles. Some guns roar their danger, and some growl it, but these rather whimpered it, as if they were begging me to be a rabbit or squirrel or something they could actually conquer. The other farmer had a heavy wood box with several glass lenses, set on a tripod. It didn’t say that it was dangerous at all.

“Thanks for the cow! The vask, I guess you call it,” I told them.

“It talks! It talks!” yabbled the farmers.

“It talks, it cooks, it writes, and it breathes fire!” I said.

The farmers discussed this in some confusion. The one with the box pointed some of the lenses at me. I peered at it. It seemed safe, and then safe, and suddenly it whispered that it could inconvenience me slightly if I was extraordinarily careless with my eyes. (Dangersense doesn’t really make things make sound, or even talk. That’s just an easy way to describe it.) So I stared at it. The farmer pushed a knob; the device flashed brilliantly, and clicked a bit. I had brightness dots floating in front of my eyes! The Great Titan Sanitarium fixed them though.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Just a picture in case anyone doesn’t believe us. What are you, and what are you doing with my cow?” said the farmer.

“I’m Jyothky. I’m a dragon, obviously, and I’m eating it mostly raw, obviously.” Maybe the dragon part would have been more obvious to them if, oh, there had ever been more than one dragon in their world before, and a rather secretive explorer of a Quel Quen at that.

“Joffee, as in short for Joffinet? My daughter is Joffinet too,” said the farmer. The brave, brave farmer.

“I’m JYOTH-kee.”

“Well, then, hello there, JOTH-kee. I don’t know what to make of you, showing up in my barn and speaking all polite-like and stealing my cow.”

That sounded like a fair complaint. On Mhel, we own everything, so it’s not stealing — except from each other maybe, but who cares about just one cow now and then? That’s not true here. Not that I care much what a hoven thinks about me. “I’ll give you something in exchange, if it’s fast.” But the last time I’d offered that, I’d burned a building and gotten into trouble with Greshthanu over it. Maybe I could do something less violent here. “Are any of you sick? I’ll heal someone. Or one of your animals.” I looked at my half-a-cow. “Not this one though. It’s a bit on the dead side.”

The farmer looked very suspicious. “Marfy’s got a bad back, Churdle’s got Moray-Lagrozo Syndrome.”

My magic can’t fix backs quickly, as I know very well. “Which one is Churdle?”

They didn’t want to tell me; they didn’t say anything. But they glanced at him, and he took a half-step back. I smiled at him. “What’s Moray-Lagrozo Syndrome?”

He said something about blood and polysthegides and his Fralian nodes not doing what Fralian nodes are supposed to. I didn’t understand it. Neither did he, I think.

“Come here, then, and I’ll see if I can fix it.”

Churdle didn’t much want to get any closer to the beautiful and powerful magical healer girl from another universe. Perhaps he was thinking of her as a huge fanged clawed blood-spattered carnivorous monster. (Unfair! I didn’t expect company, so I wasn’t trying to eat neatly.)

So I grabbed him with my tail and pulled him into the barn, with him struggling and fighting me the while. The other farmers gabbled about whether they could shoot me without hurting Churdle and suchlike. I sniffed at him — he did not much like being so close to my mouth and flickery tongue! — and, yes, something smelled wrong compared to the other hovens. Too many polysthegides in his blood, I suppose, whatever those are. So I put the Great Titan Sanitarium into him, and the Rose Rescaler. Which was silly, the Rose Rescaler is much better on lizards.

And then I remembered the Arcane Anodyne, which is meant for basic bipeds, and I had to wait for the next heartbeat to put that in him too. It sort of filled him up and flooded out of him. That seemed like a good sign (no more healing to be done), or maybe a bad one (my spells couldn’t do anything).

So I put him down and patted his head. “Did that help?”

He blinked at me, and then ran away.

So I finished the cow, and spent a while grooming myself, scrubbing blood off of me with hay. The next part of the plan was to fly to the city in raven form, get some Trestean money, then travel halfway across Trest to somewhere as yet undecided and be a tourist in hoven shape for a while. That plan had a terrible flaw: flying that far in raven form is exercise, and I was feeling tremendously lazy.

While I was dawdling, some of the hovens came back out. No guns this time, but they had a big pot and a basket of bread.

“I took a blood test, and my polysthegide levels are 210 and 83! 210 and 83!” Churdle was practically dancing.

“Is that good?” I asked.

“Is that good? That’s normal! I haven’t been better than 840-850 and 10 in years!”

“That’s good, right?”

“That’s perfect! … But I gotta know. Will it last, whatever you did?”

“I don’t know the etiology of whatever-it-was you had.” He looked blank at the word. “I don’t know what causes it. If it’s a sickness that you can get twice, you can get it again.” That’s usually true.

“I was born with it. It’s genetic.”

“Then, if it’s better now, it’ll probably stay better.”

“Well, anyhow, I’m quite thankful. That’s worth my bosses’ cow and then some … then lots. Anyhow, if you’re still hungry, we’ve brought you genuine Churry chili and troublecakes.”

Well, after a whole cow, I wasn’t hungry exactly. But the hovens had found my secret weakness! The chili was delicious, and spicy, and full of wonderful unfamiliar vegetables, and spicy, and had a superb blended flavor such as comes from long loving cooking, and spicy, and after about the third “and spicy” the troublecakes were very pleasant and buttery and blandly sweet and not the least bit troublesome.

Then I turned into a raven, flew approximately three and one-twelfth taillengths to the nearest tree, stuck my head under my wing, slept until night and/or not feeling quite so stuffed, flew to the military base, sniffed around for valuables, found them in a building marked “Paymaster’s Offices”, pried open a safe that was unaccountably not built to keep dragons out, collected a large pile of thurnies, stuffed them under my neckscales (or feathers as the case may have been) for safekeeping, and lashed my crow’s tail furiously.

«I hereby do not like technology worlds,» I wrote to Ythac.

«Giant robot bit your tail?» he answered.

«If I were there I’d bite yours. No — the money here is all paper

«That’s not very inspiring! I was hoping for piles of niobium and brazinion, and gemstones that do not occur naturally on any dragonworld!»

«Well, you’re going to have to buy them with bits of paper. Or loot them directly.» I answered.

«You know that you just told me a lot about where you are?» he said.

«Oh. Right. Are you going to come drag me home?»

«Not in a hurry. I’m going to go drag Llredh back next, I think, and then Arilash. Enjoy your vacation!»

He’s so sweet.

Tourist (Day 49)

The zeppelin to Dorday was all commercial. That means that I could look like a hoven woman dressed like one of the farmers, and give a hoven at a desk two hundred-thurney notes (I hate decimal!), get eighteen thurnies back, and a bit of paper which entitles one to sit in a hot little brick room for an hour, then climb a steel tower and sit in a lightly swaying and very long gondola full of chairs for two hours and peer at scenery and wonder, nay, marvel, at how boring flying is when it’s not with your own wings. While lightly uniformed hovens bring you little paper plates of bad olives and paper cups of lightly fermented watermelon juice, in case any spare delight is needed.

Which left me climbing down a steel tower down to the Top Tourist City of Trest, with lots of money that wasn’t looted locally, and no dragons around.

So, Dorday. Nine islands in a bright blue-water lagoon, with thirty-one bridges of gleaming stone between them. Many tall spires in gaudy colors, which would be so much fun to fly through if it weren’t for the strands of lightbulbs strung between them. (Maybe I’ll be a bird for a while later on.) Five vast parks, full of: metal and wood sculptures for hoven children to climb on, a zoological and botanical garden, games, slides, wheels to ride, carts selling any number of snacks. A huge oval stadium made of glittering stone topped with metal arches. Wide avenues of shops and cafes lined with aromatic trees.

Plenty of hotels, too, but the first three that I went to were full. I got a reservation for the following night at the Pozarde Hotel Dorday, and got annoyed with looking, and planned to spend the night in a tree in crow-form or some such. It’s not as if a bed feels any better to me than lying on a rock.

Dragons do not take terribly well to being thwarted, especially by the snivelling mechanations of small people. The natural thing to do would be to kill with terrible lightning and frost those who stand in my way. (Not fire. Fire would burn down the hotel.) That didn’t seem right, because (a) the hotel would probably be full of police and detectives and reporters and such and I still wouldn’t get a room, and (b) those who stand in my way are not would-be dragonslayers, but innocent tourists. Like me but better organized and with better local connections.

So, I decided that I needed better local connections.

I bought a copy of the day’s Magic Trumpet of Dorday, and looked around for advertisements of local guides. There weren’t any. (Many advertisements were cryptic, but after the Word-Fox told me that the first of the odd words, ‘TUSS’ was an acronym for ‘Temporary Until Someone Special’, viz. a companion to tide one through a breakup, I stopped trying to translate them.) But there was an establishment called the Red Spire of Rented Friends, on the seventh block of St. Alacord street. I was on the tenth block of St. Alacord street. Renting a friend would probably do.

Three flights blocks and two flights of stairs in a slightly shabby tall building with a predictably red spire brought me to the slightly shabby front door of the Red Spire of Rented Friends. The lobby wasn’t shabby exactly. It was baroque. It was full of gilded statues of hovens embracing each other, dancing under arched boughs laden with with berries, playing harps and violins, or … well, I suppose you can do that to your lover if you don’t have lots of sharp pointy teeth. I should have figured it out then, but on Mhel they all wear special hats to show what they are, and on Hove they don’t, so I didn’t realize.

“I’d like to rent a friend, please,” I said to the receptionist.

She smiled a mouth full of very white and very symmetrical blunt flat teeth at me, and twirled a lock of long black hair around a finger. “This would be your emporium! What sort of a friend would you like? And what name shall I give for you?”

“I’m Jyothky Meragathium,” I said. I was not concerned with secrecy, except from Ythac. If Ythac tracked me down to Dorday, he’d find me in a few minutes no matter what name I gave. “I’d like someone who knows the local entertainments. And hotels. Hotels especially.”

“All of our associates know the local entertainments and hotels in great detail,” she said, which should have been a clue. “I take it you’re thinking of an overnight rental?”

“No — two weeks, I think. Maybe more, maybe less. I was planning to pay today for two weeks. If I need to go home before then, I won’t be asking for a refund.”

“That does limit things a bit — not all of our associates are available for quite so long at once.” She shuffled through some papers, and spread five on the counter. I looked. Each one had a picture of one of the rental friends, all beaming and beautiful hovens dressed for the beach, and a few none-too-specific sentences about how Trabundo was cheerful and compliant, Elesma was enthusiastic and energetic, Tarcuna was sweet and spunky, and so on. That should have been a clue too.

Spunky sounded like an advantage in making reservations. “Tarcuna, maybe.”

“An excellent choice. Let me consult with her and make sure that she’s actually available. Our associates don’t always tell me their commitments two weeks in advance.” (Which was an overripe-mango sort of white lie.) She smiled that fearsomely symmetric smile, and walked elegantly down a corridor to one of many small doors. She tapped on the door. “Tarcuna, are you alone in there?”

Tarcuna was alone, and let the receptionist in. The receptionist asked, “We’ve got a customer, for a two-week hire. Are you available?” I think she thought I couldn’t hear her. Hovens are basically deaf.

“I never have any plans. That’s fine,” said Tarcuna. “Boy or girl?”

“Girl, named Joffee something-or-other. Young. Not so bad to look at. From out of town, but I’m not sure where. I’m not sure if she’s your exactly your type or not.”

“I don’t really care if she’s my type or not. A job’s a job,” said Tarcuna.

“Has Bopo been fed lately?” asked the receptionist.

“Yesterday. Make sure I can get a night off in a week so I can feed him again, can you? It would be awkward if my customer got sick halfway through.”

“I’ll check. She’s got to sleep sometime anyways. Anything else I should ask about?”

“Nothing really. I know what to do. Buzz me and I’ll come out,” said Tarcuna.

So the receptionist came back, and discussed the rates with me (fifteen hundred thurneys a day, with a 100% tip traditional for satisfactory service, plus I’m supposed to buy her meals and museum tickets and such if she’s going to any such things with me, the receptionist was careful to inform me), and make sure that Tarcuna would have one half-day off out of every ten. I counted out thirty thousand thurneys in bills, the receptionist pushed a button that rang a bell, and that was that.

Tarcuna sauntered out of her chamber. She’s a compact hoven with short neat red fur with grey stripes, long red hair in spirals, and a very full udder. She was wearing short swimwear, rather like in her flier. Little paste gems were glued on her hooves, and a big paste smile was glued on her mouth. “Joffee? I understand that you’re my special friend for a very long time? I’m Tarcuna,” she said and embraced me in considerable detail. At that point I did start to suspect what she was, really I did. But only a little.

“Glad to meet you, Tarcuna. I’m Jyothky, though.” She tried to say it right, but it kept coming out Joffee. So I told her to use my highschool nickname Spotty, which I had to translate into Trestean so she could say it right.

“Would you like to come back to my room, have a little brandy, relax a bit and get to know each other better?” she asked.

“OK! But I will be making you work some in a half-hour or a whole one!” I said. I wanted a hotel room.

“I’ll work in whatever way you like, Spotty,” she purred in a voice as sweet and artificial as corn syrup.

So we went back to her room, which was a small place with a big and very important-looking bed, and a few smaller and lesser bits of furniture here and there. It looked all very contrived, except for a battered textbook on designing ray guns stuck in a corner. Tarcuna poured us each a little cup of some sort of sweet aromatic brandy from a cheap-looking glass decanter, and held her cup to my lips to drink a little toast to friendship and pleasure. Which all should have been a pretty unambiguous clue, but I was mostly thinking of the hotel.

And after we finished our brandy, and said a few very unmemorable pleasantries, she asked me what I liked.

“For this vacation? Seeing Dorday … museums and parks and such. The zoo, definitely, I don’t know anything about the native animals except for some ugly pointy desert herbivores. I’m going to eat a lot — I’ve got an appetite that you wouldn’t believe, and I haven’t had much but raw meat for a while. Mostly, though, I don’t want any company … hovens don’t count … but obviously you won’t be helping with that.” No point in being secret from my rent-a-friend.

Tarcuna laughed, and said. “Oh, I’ll be glad to show you around Dorday all you want! You’re funny, Spotty. People don’t count as company? What does?”

OK, I guess that wasn’t quite as clear as it could have been. I tried the direct approach. “I’m really a dragon — that’s a gigantic scaly carnivorous monster from another dimension. I’m here on my engagement flight. But I’m pretty annoyed at all the rest of us, so I’m taking a vacation for a few weeks from them.”

“Wow, that’s original, that’s a cool story! What am I? Your captive specimen? Are you going to probe me?” she said, and winked.

“Um … no, you’re my hired friend, and you’re going to find me a hotel room and take me around Dorday … right?” I said.

She smiled a very syrupy smile. “Whatever you like! We can do both, there’s plenty of time…. I’m very accomodating. Just tell me what you’d like me to do, and I’ll do it.”

“Start with the hotel room. I don’t want to sleep in a tree tonight,” I said.

“In a tree? … Sure! Want a bridal suite? A special bathtub? A massage table? How much do you want to spend a night? Two hundred for a nice basic room, up to six hundred for the best Dorday has to offer,” she asked.

“I don’t see any reason to get less than the best. If it’s available — I tried a few hotels and they didn’t have rooms,” I said.

“Don’t worry! I will find you somewhere excellent!” She took a curly little appliance and a big book from a cabinet, and started calling hotels — the first four she tried didn’t have any rooms — and negotiating. As she called, she untied the straps of her bathing suit, and caressed herself here and there and sucked the tip of her finger and grinned at me. That’s when I got the point for real. Oops!

“The Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium has Suite 406, a very nice suite for four hundred sixty a night. No massage table, but a big bathtub. It’s a wonderful hotel! I’ve been to that room before. Is that good? Shall I have them reserve it, we can go look when we’re done here?”

“That’s fine, let’s just take it.”

“Sure! You won’t be unhappy. I can do all sorts of things in Suite 406.” She chatted on the phone to make the arrangements — we’d need to come by in four hours to pay for it. As she talked, she showed off various primary and secondary sexual characteristics, and indicated intimacies to me by quiet but eager gestures.

So I had to ask. “Um… Tarcuna? Are you a prostitute?”

Her face was carefully guarded. “Sure, if that’s what you’d like, Spotty.”

“I mean, professionally,” I said.

“I do prefer a word like ‘public friend’ when I’m being coy. I don’t necessarily pleasure all my clients. I’ll use whatever word you like … I can be your high-class courtesan, or your dirty whore, or your nice sweet girlfriend, or your captive native specimen, or whatever you like.”

“I’m really not here to fornicate with hovens,” I said. “If I’m going to fornicate with anyone, it ought to be my fiancés, but I’ve really not been doing such a good job on that.”

“I really don’t follow you,” said Tarcuna, her face-fur going irregular.

“I really did want to rent a friend, or a native guide who knows what’s what here and will keep me company when I want and tell me interesting stories and show me where to get the best chili in the restaurant only the natives know about,” I said.

“I’ll do all that! I’ll be glad to make your body feel so happy, too, if you ever like that,” she said. She smelled worried.

But by then I had figured out the problem. “Oh, you’re worried about your tip — that’s for fornicating, right? Here’s 8,640, um, nine thousand I mean, right now.” The money was all stolen anyways, and worthless as treasure, and just had to last for a few weeks. “I’ll give you a bigger tip at the end. But really, I don’t want you to try to pleasure me. It wouldn’t work, ’cause I have no sense of touch, and even talking about it just gets me upset.”

She counted the money quickly and made it vanish, and smiled a nice honeyed professionalized weaponized smile to me. “Whatever you like, Spotty! All I have to say there, is, thank you! And just about anything you want to do with me, to me, is fine. I won’t push anything at you … I’m very sorry I did, just, most of my customers like that.”

“Think nothing of it. My fiancées keep wanting me to copulate with them, and I’m not interested, and I’m on vacation from that for a while, is all. Let’s go get that hotel room, and then some food.”

She started dressing, taking some rather more practical underwear and tunic and skirt out of an armoire. “I won’t push anymore! … Wait, fiancées? plural? How many people are you going to marry, anyways?”

“I’m supposed to pick one.”

“That’s so unusual! Having several fiancés at once, I mean. Picking one is normal.” She finished dressing, looked in one of the mirrored walls, and adjusted her hat and tunic a bit. “Bthera told you, you’re paying for my food if we eat out together, didn’t she? That way I can come with you to any restaurant you want to eat at. Don’t worry, I’ll pick cheap things.”

“Bthera’s the woman at the front counter? Yes, she did. Eat whatever you like. I’ve got three-quarters of a million thurneys to last me two or three weeks.”

Tarcuna whistled. “Three-quarters of a million? No wonder you’ll rent a call girl instead of a chor-chor, and get Suite 406.”

“Chor-chor?” I cast the Word-Fox: it meant ‘guide around Dorday’. “Oh, there were all sorts of ads for them in the paper.”

“Don’t worry! I know everything that any chor-chor knows, plus lots more. They don’t get to Suite 406, I’ll tell you that! Plus … you said you don’t want to be touched, but I can put on a show for you. Me alone, or with someone … would you like that?” We left the Red Spire, waving at Bthera on the way out.

“I really don’t find hovens sexually appealing at all. You look like food, if you must know, and I’m hungry. The dinner kind of hungry, not the sex kind. I’ve got enough trouble noticing my own kind as appealing,” I said. Which was a third of a lie: hovens look like small people, who are not, generally speaking, appropriate food. Not that they can’t be eaten, but eating them is only for special occasions of one sort or another.

“Oh, right, you’re an alien monster beast. I’ll have to remember that. You don’t look it.” Tarcuna didn’t believe me, but I didn’t care as long as she did what I hired her for. “Sorry to keep offering. Whores don’t have a lot of professional ethics, but I try to be an honest one.” She grinned at me. “OK, alien monster beast! Let’s get you set up in a hotel, then … do you like Ventelian food?”

“I’ve never tasted it.”

“Amazing. There’s the best Ventelian restaurant about four blocks away from the Elysium, in the building with three yellow spires. They make a zotanco al besti that you would not believe. It’s so rich!”

“Now that’s the sort of thing I hired you for! Lead on, my brave native guide, and show me this thing which you call ‘zotanco al besti’.”

And she did nicely. Com’ al Virtu was easily the best Ventelian restaurant I have ever eaten at. I might say that again after I’ve eaten at another one. zotanco al besti is a very fine liver puree mixed with butter and aromatic spices, and served on little circles of crispy rice cracker that make a wonderful contrast and crunch delightfully on silly flat hoven teeth. Tarcuna was a bit surprised when I ordered twelve more servings after I liked the first one.

Then of course I had the main courses — I’d ordered several. Tarcuna said, “I thought you were just going taste them all, but it looks as if you’re going to finish them all.”

“I am, and order some more of that grilled young vask with fruit sauce. And that poached fish, too, the pink one.”

“How can you eat that much?”

“I’m very large lizard! I need to keep fed.”

“Right. You’ll make yourself sick, eating like that.”

“Only if I don’t eat enough and start to starve.”

I didn’t eat enough, but we’d been in the restaurant for two hours. I’m going to have to go off now and then and find a full-sized meal — I can’t really spend half my days nibbling tiny hoven-sized snacks with a tiny hoven-sized mouth. Tarcuna can earn her salary and arrange for a whole barbequed cow in a private pavilion in the countryside sometime.

After that we saw the Dorday Museum of Art and Culture, which was very pretty. I bought a guidebook showing most of the art though, so I’m not going to write about it in here.

Indignities of Life as a Hoven

When we got back to the hotel room, it was instantly clear that Someone Had Been There.

“Two female hovens have been in here!” I hissed at Tarcuna. “They searched the room and they did something with ammonia!”

“How can you tell?”

“I smell them. I smell two female hovens, one older than you, the other younger and pregnant and having digestive troubles. I smell soap and ammonia, as if they had sought to conceal their odor from me by pungent substances, the fools. And they disturbed the room! Remember the bed, which was rumpled from when you bounced on it? Its sheets and blankets are smooth again! Remember the closet door, which was open? It is now closed!”

Tarcuna laughed. “You’re silly!”

“I wouldn’t call it “silly”. I would call it “furious”! What if I had left something valuable in here?”

“Well, there is that. Nobody should leave anything too valuable in a hotel,” she said. “You didn’t though. You don’t have any luggage.”

“That’s beside the point. Nobody, nobody, should come into a dragon’s lair without permission! I should find them and kill them!”

“Well, that’s maybe a bit extreme, Spotty,” she said.

“Well. I don’t feel like doing a lot of work about it. But I will if they do it again!” I hissed.

She looked rather scared, which is silly because I wasn’t angry at her. “Shall I call the front desk and have them stop maid service?”

“Maid service?”

“Yes, the hotel sends a maid to clean your room twice a day. Part of the price of the room. If you don’t like it they don’t have to though. I like having clean towels and sheets, especially if there’s any, um, business,” said Tarcuna.

Well, that was embarrassing. “Oh. And the ammonia?”

“For cleaning the mirrors and windows. I’m surprised you can smell it — I can’t — it usually clears out pretty fast,” she said. I examined her closely with veriception. She was telling the truth, claw it.

“So I did ask for it, just without realizing that I had done?”

“Sure!” said Tarcuna.

“Right. Don’t cancel the maid service.” I was still furious though. Anger doesn’t just go away after it comes, and being shown to be a stupid ignorant lizard by a hired whore didn’t really improve my mood any. Even if I wasn’t angry at the maids anymore, or even at Tarcuna exactly. “OK. You go to bed now. I’ll be along in a bit.”

“Just checking? Do you want me ready, or awake, or anything? Or we can just cuddle or anything you like?” Tarcuna was sounding professional. She didn’t smell the least bit lustful, by the way, not this time or any of the others that she offered.

“No. I’ll wake you if I want to talk. Nothing else is the least bit appealing,” I snapped.

“Whatever you like, Spotty. At Red Spire we try to give our clients exactly what they want! Nothing less, and nothing more.” she said, and started to ready herself for sleep.

I went into the bathroom. The tub was huge and made of marble, and had many interesting knobs and levers of shining ivory. I called Tarcuna. “I’d like about three inches of water in the bathtub.”

“Hot or cold?”

“It doesn’t matter, I’m going to freeze it and boil it anyways,” I said, which got an odd look.

“Well, this knob is for hot water, this for cold, this lever to keep water in the tub. This one points the water to the shower above, this one to the side, this one to the fountain-chair in that corner,” and so on for the rest of the controls.

“And to turn the water off, I twist those knobs back the way they came?” I asked.

“Right, yes. Just like an ordinary bathtub.”

“I’ve never used an ordinary bathtub. I usually take a sandbath in a desert of angry sand. Or a river, if my mother makes me. Well, used to. I’m a grownup now.”

“Whatever you say, Spotty,” she said. “Shall I go to bed now?”

“Yes.” She left. I closed the door, and waited for the tub to fill enough. Then I threw a towel into it, and took the smallest shape I could — that’s a tiny little dragon shape, about a third of an inch from head to tailtip. Everything looks huge in that shape.

It’s not as satisfying to attack a wet towel with tiny needles of fire and ice as it is to attack a mountainside with the full force of my whefô. But it’s a lot more convenient.

Two-twelfths of an hour later, the towel was a ruined mess of scorch-patches, and I had managed to beat my temper back to the point where I could sleep. I turned back to my hoven shape, discouraged Tarcuna from her lusty yet lustless professional obligations once more, and went went to bed.

Now Tarcuna is asleep on one side of the bed, and I’m going to do the same on the other side. And if any of my fiancés complains about me sharing a bed with a hoven, I’m going to toss off all my illusion spells and tell them a long and boring story about what happened that they can see is true.

Not that any of them can talk, with all that mount-fighting they’ve been doing.

Coda: Scores

Topic Score
Fiancés -144
Civilized Food +144
My Cleverness -72
Being On My Own +72 (Tarcuna doesn’t count)
Technology +36 (It’s pretty spiffy)
Magic -36 (My language spell didn’t tell me “chor-chor!” Because I learned the language mostway across Trest, and didn’t ask it about local words here!)

Dorday Day (Day 50)

“What do your usual clients like to do in Dorday?” I asked Tarcuna over breakfast. The Grand Hotel Elysium Dorday provided a generous variety of pastries and fruits for breakfast, if one were willing to pay a generous price. Which I was.

This was the wrong question to ask Tarcuna, because she told me. I am alarmed and surprised that hovens — whose necks are so short as to barely be there at all, and so inflexible as to not even allow their heads to face backwards — can do some of those things.

“Maybe a different question would be in order. What do your usual clients who are taking a temporary vacation from their reproductive organs like to do in Dorday?”

“That sort of vacation isn’t the usual reason to hire a public friend, Spotty. Would you like me to suggest a few things we might do today?”

“Yes. That,” I said. “Actually, you think about it while I go get a few more of those sausage-and-egg pastries.”

She looked at her plate, where she hadn’t managed to finish a whole one, and looked a bit alarmed. “Don’t make yourself sick, Spotty!”

“I’m not going to get sick!”

“Still, maybe I’d better leave the amusement park for later,” she said.

“Why? What’s that?”

“It’s an amusement park,” she said with a smile. “An old wheel of iron, some new roller coasters, a mini-zeppelin, a starcatcher room, all the usual things. Not so good on a full belly, somehow.”

I sat back down and started devouring the pastries with a mouth that’s much too small for practical eating. “I fly barrel rolls when I’ve got my wings,” I said. I do, too, at least once a year. “A few hoven rides aren’t going to bother my belly!”

Tarcuna giggled. “That’s right. Flying lizard from another world. Still, how about a cruise around the islands and out the bay in the morning? Or if you’re feeling intellectual again, the Museum of Visible Experiments is quite smart, and the Museum of the Previous Millennium is quite pretty. Then lunch, if you really want it …”

“I will!” I think that if I eat at a steady but unhurried pace constantly while I am hoven, without stopping to sleep or sightsee, I will manage to keep myself from starving. I’ll probably lose weight though. (Sorry to dwell on this, but I am quite hungry as I write.)

“… After a mere seven gigantic sausage and egg pastries, one of which would fill a large man’s belly, of course you’ll want lunch. Then the amusement park in the afternoon, if it please you? And after a vast dinner, because you’ll surely be starving by then, perhaps you would like to go to the theatre — a play, an opera, a lecture, a concert? By evening I’m on more familiar ground, you know. Many of my customers like to combine several of the finer things of evening life.”

“All of those sound good. You’re the guide, I’m appointing you to be the one to pick for today. The rest will wait until later days,” I said. Tarcuna looked at my plate, so I added, “You do know I’m going to have a bigger lunch than I had breakfast.”

She giggled. “You certainly have the most unusual personal style of any of my customers!” Which had the burnt-milk scent of a rather debatable truth, but not enough of an actual lie to complain about.

“Well, do a good job and I’ll tell my friends. I’m sure you’ll have dragons hiring you regularly.” I determinedly didn’t think about what I’m pretty sure Llredh or, worse, Arilash would be hiring her for.

Tarcuna obviously loved the Museum of Visible Experiments. “I haven’t been here since I was in school. Prof. Wulpmegarn was running an exhibit on intrascopy. Kangbok was my special friend at the time, we were taking Wulp’s class. She talked me into helping out setting it up.” Tarcuna peered at me as though she had said something secret and significant. I didn’t know what and didn’t feel like asking; she’d probably tell me. “That exhibit is long gone, but the permanant exhibits are still there, and they’ve surely got something fun in the rotating exhibit hall.”

And the word ‘rotating’ was quite correct. The rotating exhibit hall was on torque batteries. Those are tiny squat cylinders which store torque. You can wind them and wind them and wind them and wind them with a big red plastic crank using some big red plastic gears. Then you flip a big green plastic lever and scoot the battery into one of four positions. And then you push a big blue plastic button, and release the torque more or less quickly in a violet beam. They don’t do the full mighty twistor beam in a science museum with children around! But they do make a heavy wheel spin, just as if you had been cranking it by paw. Or hand, if you’re a hoven or something.

They even showed us the insides of a battery. Something about a self-polarizing niobium slush. I didn’t understand it very well. Tarcuna had studied it in school a lot, so she explained it all to me. My brain was a non-self-polarizing non-niobium slush and I didn’t understand it any better. Fortunately I don’t have to think, I’m on vacation.

After an unmemorable lunch, we went to the St. Cheerior Amusement Park. It’s what I was hoping to see on Hove in the first place: small people playing games with technology. So there were engines projecting spirals of rainbow energy, or floating and bounding balls in the air, or whirling hovens around at alarming speeds, all for no better reason than being pretty or having fun.

So Tarcuna and I sat in a big plastic cart shaped somewhat like a huge-toothed lion and somewhat like a cow and adorned with some holy symbols, and got spun around in the air. It’s not much like flying, not even like barrel rolls. If you try hard, you can persuade your kineception that the plastic cart is standing still with you in it, and the whole rest of Hove is whirling madly around you. I don’t think you can do that kineceptive trick if you’re flying by yourself. It goes reasonably fast, measured in body lengths. And of course you don’t have to flap anything. Except for your clothes and your hair, and they flap themselves.

I think that it feels fun somehow, too. I’d rather snarl than talk about that.

St. Cheerior has some more sedate rides too. We rode the iron wheel, which is huge and tall and not very dramatic, but gives one of the best views of the city that one can have without flying.

Oh, and there are games too. They are not built for dragons. I played the Brick Lift, where you lift one huge brick on a rope pulley sort of thing, then two bricks, and so on to ten bricks. Not very many real hovens can lift ten bricks; Tarcuna could lift four, and she’s reasonably strong. I won a six-legged blue-green stuffed animal with big plastic bubble-and-bead eyes and a hideous crimson tuft on its tail. I wore it on my head for a while. Then it fell off and knocked over a child’s ice cream, so I bought the child more ice cream and give her the stuffed animal too. Everyone was happier that way, including the stuffed animal I’m sure.

We went back to the hotel to clean up before dinner. Tarcuna changed clothes to a sinuous sparkly-black sheath sort of thing that clung tightly to her hips and udder. I stared at it long enough for her to notice.

“Like it?” she asked.

“It’s quite nice. I was thinking of copying the sparkles.”

She stuck glittery metal and paste gemstone things into holes in her ears. “I don’t quite understand, Spotty.”

“Well, I’m flat black,” I started. Tarcuna looked me over, but of course I’m not flat black as a hoven, I’m brick red. “Which is nice and feminine of course. But sometimes I like to look a bit more interesting than that. I was just thinking I could go shiny sparkly black, like that, um, garment thing that you’re wearing. Still feminine, but more glamorous. Not like wearing glowing blue spikes or something.”

Tarcuna stared at me, either trying to keep a straight face, or trying to figure out what answer would give her the best tip. Then she twirled around right under the light, to make it sparkle more. “That would look beautiful on you.” I had to wrinkle my nose at the sewage impression of her lie. She continued, “You’re welcome to borrow this tonight if you like. I can pin it to fit you, I’m sure.”

“No, this is fine. I don’t like wearing clothes much.”

She looked at my face, and at my dress (which isn’t clothes, it’s shapeshifted scales), and at my face again. “Well, if you’re naked enough to suit you, let’s go to dinner. The restaurant won’t mind you being completely nude under that dress, I don’t imagine. We’re a bit late as it is, even for someone with a regular appetite.”

We were a lot late for dinner, actually, and went to the opera first.

Molishan Boiled is a musical reconstruction of a particularly dramatic episode of one of the Trestean holy books. Everyone is completely familiar with the plot from childhood. So they made no particular effort to make it easy for extradimensional travellers to understand. (As far as I know I am the first extradimensional traveller who has seen it, and I am incognito, but that is no excuse.) The whole performance was tinted with overripe-fruit of fiction. If I were a proper adult, I would have put an veriception block on the performers, but I don’t know the spells, so I just put up with it.

Molishan was the one wearing the golden antler headdress … I think. Of course sometimes that was one actor and sometimes it was another. The first time it changed heads made sense to me. The first act was during Molishan’s childhood, if I am interpreting the live birth scene properly. I don’t think hovens are usually born as teenage boys though, for I have just today bought ice cream for a younger one than that, but we’ll count that as artistic license. Definite artistic licence and/or religious orthodoxy comes in the big scene in the first act, when the suns Verdinet and Floret swoop out of the sky and become the gods Drukah and Bmern, here presented as a three-headed eagle and a dancing flower, and proclaim Molishan to be the Prophet of the Age.

Then there’s an intermission, where small mammals with quick biologies can take care to be comfortable for the second act (Tarcuna). Or where they can get expensive cups of very good fermented watermelon juice if they want to be uncomfortable for the second act (the gentleman sitting on the other side of Tarcuna). Or, if they want to venture into the dubious streets outside of the theatre, they can find dubious gentlemen willing to sell them bosum or lurds. (The one makes one sleepy and peaceful, and the other makes music appear to have colors; they are both illegal, and Tarcuna had little good to say about either one.) I had watermelon juice, but I am forever denied discomfort.

The second act gets confusing beyond words. Molishan goes to work in the king’s kitchen. But that’s somehow Garchune, which is to say, Hell. The chief cook, who is secretly the Lady of Peppers, prepares soup for all the nobility, but it’s too spicy and they all die in very overdone convulsions (?) and become ingredients for the next feast (?) of the damned (?). Molishan rescues them in a grand theatrical style. One of them gets rescued from a gigantic tin can. Another gets cracked out of a giant egg, which I thought was a birth scene until Tarcuna reminded me that hovens are live-birth creatures like we saw in the first act. Another gets defrosted from the Freezer in the Kitchen of Hell. The king himself was in the back of the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic, covered with mold made of cloth and paint. Molishan made a big show of unwrapping him, nearly getting overwhelmed by the stench, plugging his nose with wax, and then unwrapping him the rest of the way and scrubbing the mold off. It was beautiful and funny at the same time, and the music was very cheerful.

Then, of course, the chief cook / Lady of Peppers comes back, and all the saved nobles run out the back door. Molishan has a terrible fight with her. By “terrible” I mean “utterly unimpressive”. I don’t think that even hovens fight that slowly and clumsily. Molishan loses, dies, and is tossed into the cauldron. The chief cook builds up the fire high, but then has to run off to nurse her baby. (I think the baby grows up to be a major adversary at other points in the myth cycle.) Molishan pops out of the cauldron, except he has become a girl. This evidently confounds the Lady of Peppers so much that she doesn’t realize it’s Molishan — perhaps she cannot see the golden antler headdress? — and he/she escapes.

Then there’s about five-twelfths of an hour of dancing and singing. Much of it is on horseback. They had twenty-two actors riding fifteen horses on stage at one point. I don’t think this had anything to do with the plot, though Molishan was extensively and acrobatically involved. All three versions of Molishan, I mean. They tossed the golden antler headdress from one to another.

That is a medium-important myth of most of the orthodox religions of Trest. I was not greatly enlightened. I trust you understand more than I.

After that, Tarcuna and I went for a very late dinner at a bar. The small spicy sandwiches were very small and very spicy, though I don’t think they were quite up to the Kitchen of Garchune level of heat. Nobody died anyways. Tarcuna tried to explain the opera to me, but my head was still a non-self-polarizing non-niobium slush. Also I don’t think she understood it very well either.

It was pretty and exciting anyways. This is a wonderful vacation!

Getting Mugged (Day 53)

Tarcuna informed me that, as anyone knows, the best crompies in Dorday are found in a little waterside restaurant named “Billy’s”. Tarcuna has been very good for important bits of information like this, and a good deal else. She has lived in Dorday her whole life: as a child, then as a student at Dorday Academy for two years studying weapons engineering, then she dropped out and became a public friend about a year and a half ago. (She seemed a bit sad about that. I didn’t want to make my vacation sad, or torment the girl, so I didn’t ask any details.)

“I didn’t know that. What are crompies?”

“You don’t know crompies? A great gourmet like you, and you’ve never had a crompy?” She was quite glad to find an euphemism for “glutton” that she could use on me.

“I haven’t. Not by that name.”

Crompies are sandwiches, fried fish and chilis and shredded apples and sour cream on puffy bread. They are a Dorday specialty, and nobody in the universe makes them better than Billy’s.

“So let’s go for that boat ride with music in the morning. We’ll get back a little before eclipse, we’ll be right by the lagoon, and we’ll have lunch at Billy’s then.”

“Just to warn you, Spotty, it’s in a rather bad neighborhood. Sailors, dock workers, and criminals. Billy’s itself is fine, but the walk there isn’t really nice to do in the dark.”

I shrugged. “Dark and criminals really shouldn’t be much trouble.”

Tarcuna looked a bit worried. “Well, I want your vacation to be as trouble-free as possible.”

The boat ride was quiet and peaceful, except for all the hoven children running around and squeaking, trying to see fish in the lagoon, trying to attract gulls with bits of cookies. The promised musical entertainment was five hovens in odd costumes singing traditional Trestean childrens’ songs. The ones with the wordplay were pretty fun for me, since I hadn’t heard them before. The ones urging good behavior were tedious even to me. Tarcuna and I were the only adults without children listening, though. Then somehow two of the children tricked me into playing Pickle-or-Pie with me — it’s a board game where you move your pawn around based on which cards you draw. You never have any choice about what to do. I will take that as a sufficient excuse for losing a board game to a six-year-old hoven boy.

Billy’s wasn’t a little waterside restaurant any more. They’d moved a block away to somewhere much larger. And we still had to wait half an hour for a table; the eclipse started while we were standing outdoors in a line full of sailors, dock workers, criminals, and tourists.

“After lunch, we could go to the Garment District and get you a couple new outfits,” said Tarcuna. “You’ve been wearing that same tunic all week.”

“It’s not dirty,” I said. It wasn’t. It’s not a real tunic, it’s some of my scales shapeshifted, and that makes it easy to clean even if some dust manages to blast its brutal way through the Hoplonton.

“It looks like something a farmer from Churry would wear. Let me at least take you to look for something new. We’re next to the Garment District, clothes there are cheap.”

“I don’t care about cheap. I’ve got three-quarters of a million thurnies in my pocket, I can buy expensive clothes if I want.”

Tarcuna looked a bit nervous. “I wouldn’t say that so loudly right here. Would you rather go to Bisarello Street? It’s expensive there, I can’t afford to shop there myself, but the boutiques are really something.”

“That sounds maybe better,” I said. I don’t like wearing real clothes generally, since they’re so easy to wreck with a careless movement or a stray fire breath. But Tarcuna could help put them on me. Then I could shapeshift into wearing them.

And finally it was our turn to get a table. Tarcuna didn’t blink an eye at me eating twelve crompies to her one (and they are really quite good, even if Tarcuna says they’re not as good as when Billy’s was just a little shack when she worked there). And headed out towards the canal, where we planned to catch a bus-boat to Bisarello Street.

And of course that’s where we got jumped. Three hovens were lurking in the doors of an ugly brick warehouse, trusting to eclipse’s shadows to hide them. But they smelled of sweat and excitement and their hearts were racing as we approached and their bodies whispered of feeble danger, so I’m not sure why they bothered hiding, except that they thought I was a hoven and unable to smell or hear very much. Two others had been following us from Billy’s. The last two were pretending to be engrossed in a game of cards.

And then they all got up or turned around or stepped faster, as the case may be, so that we were roughly surrounded. Two of them showed guns, little stubby things that whimpered “if you were really what you seemed, I’d be menacing” to dangersense. Three had knives, and two had leaden clubs or some such. “OK, you two. Hand over all your cash and you don’t get hurt.”

Tarcuna started squeaking “He—-”

I took the gun from the hoven who had talked, and one of his fingers with it, and the club from the hoven next to him. It turned out not to be a club, but a battered length of pipe. I don’t much like using weapons at all, and certainly not ugly ones, so I threw it through the other gunman. It left a big messy hole. For the sake of symmetry, I threw the gun at the other pipe-wielder, but it didn’t go all the way through. Unreliable, like all weapons. I’d rather use my claws and breath.

Tarcuna finished squeaking “—-lp!”

I smiled very politely at the surviving muggers. “Same deal backwards. Hand over all your cash and you won’t get hurt. More.” They weren’t really listening to me, though. They were staring at their two dead companions, except for the first gunman, who was staring at the place his finger had been.

“Oh, never mind,” I said, since I didn’t think they were worth looting. I flopped at them haphazardly with my ripped hukuchô. They ran away screaming.

Tarcuna stared at the corpses. “You killed them… I’ve never seen anyone move so fast. You … you … are you a special government assassin, an enhanced agent?”

“No, just a dragon, like I said.”

“Is that like a cyoziworm … you’re a … something mysterious and powerful … who’s taken over a girl’s body?”

“No, I’m just a dragon. Oh, I know how to change my shape to look hoven, or animal, or whatever,” I said. “I’m not very good at fighting — most of my fiancés are much better.”

She looked at the corpses, then at me. “That’s not very good? It was as deadly as the Lady of Peppers in a fury. … Should we call the police? What do you do when you kill someone?”

“I’m not sure, with people who don’t belong to anyone. We could eat them if you want.”

Tarcuna was staring at me as if I’d said something ridiculous. “I don’t want to eat them…”

“I don’t either. They’re not my friends, and I’d rather find a good restaurant if I actually want a meal,” I said. So obvious.

“This isn’t the time for jokes. Do you want to spend the night in prison?”

“Why would I do that? I’ve got a perfectly good hotel room,” I said.

She was tugging me away from the bodies. “We’ve got to get out of here!”

“Tarcuna, I’m really not worried about fighting hovens. If seven come at me, seven will die. If twelve thousand and ninety-six come at me, twelve thousand and ninety-six will die.” Which would have sounded better in Trestean if I had said “seven thousand”, but I don’t like decimal numbers any more than I like weapons. Also it wasn’t true, since seven had come at me and only two died.

“If the police come, we’ll get arrested. We’ll go to jail. It would ruin my life!”, wailed Tarcuna. I evidently didn’t seem that impressed, so she added, “Oh, and cut into your vacation.”

I had to chuckle at her last point; she was obviously starting to understand me. Though I rather liked her, and didn’t want to ruin her life either. “Oh, right. I’d have to get you out, wouldn’t I? That would be awkward.” I put the Esrret-Sky-Painted on both of us, not that it’s at all the right spell for the ground, and trotted through the dismal streets under the eclipse with her.

We passed the maimed gunman, with one of the other thugs working hard to bandage his hand. I gave them a cheery wave. They didn’t seem to recognize me, so the Esrret-Sky-Painted must have been doing something. Tarcuna broke into a run, and I followed her, and after a few more turns we came to the bridge.

She wasn’t in the mood for shopping after that, though. I bought two bottles of spirits that she said were good, and four more that she didn’t say were good but looked interesting (but weren’t actually good — I should listen to Tarcuna). We ordered two hoven-long sandwiches, one mostly of roast cow and peppers, and the other an assortment of smoked sausages, brought to the room. And we locked ourselves in the hotel room, and I spent most of the afternoon comforting Tarcuna from being scared of muggers and being scared of me and being just plain scared.

Which was at just as pleasing as shopping for clothes would have been. I just realized that I’ve always liked being a shelter for small people. It’s a good hobby, and better than most. Even if it occasionally breaks my back, I suppose.

Coda: Laws and Punishments in Trest

Tarcuna told me a lot about the laws and gendarmes in Trest. I wouldn’t say that it makes very much sense, but here it is.

First of all, some things are illegal if they happen at all. Murder, embezzling, simony, kidnapping, apostasy from any of the orthodox religions, drunkenness, theft of art, and sedition, for example. These are mostly the more severe crimes, but not all of them. Drunkenness is punished by a fine of a single thurny, which used to be a lot of money but isn’t anymore. Actually people aren’t convicted of drunkenness very often. A drunkenness conviction is a convenient way for the gendarmes to harass someone they don’t like, or for one politician to humiliate another.

Other things are only illegal if they’re noticed soon enough — prostitution (ten days), kidnapping (ten years), use of evil chords in music (ten days from time of the first public performance), adultery (ten years), theft of foodstuffs (ten hours), and bribery (ten hours). And mugging (ten days). I didn’t see how mugging could go unnoticed at all, even by weak hoven senses, but the law is that the gendarmes have to notice it. So the victim has to go find a gendarme and complain quickly enough, or there’s no crime.

In the center of Dorday, at least, the gendarmes do wander around the city, showing their wire circle insignia, and try to make everything peaceful and lawful. That’s in the parts of the city that tourists go to. The dock areas are for sailors and lowlives. And of course, places like the Red Spire of Rented Friends have their own ways of avoiding the gendarmes. Tarcuna didn’t want to explain how that worked. I suspect bribery, noticed after eleven hours.

Oh, and I’m now a criminal, since I killed two hovens. “They attacked first” is a pretty good defense against murder charges in court, and if I went to trial I’d probably be sentenced to two months of penance supervised by my official sect. Trestean citizens are more or less required to maintain a state of ritual purity, though that’s not really observed for anyone, and Tarcuna hasn’t been anywhere close to it for years.

(Actually it’s more than two, isn’t it? Three more when I burned that army station in Drupe-ek-Kavash. I’m pretty sure that’s all so far.)

Then, of course, I’d get tried for atheism, since I don’t have an official sect to impose penances. “My fiancé has an undead god in a bottle. I don’t exactly worship him, but he’s good for romantic advice.” isn’t a good defense against atheism charges in court. Tarcuna gave me a rather odd look when I told her about that.

“You really can’t expect me to worship any hoven gods. Your suns are just natural phenomena, not supernatural powers. I do have a sense for telling where gods are,” I said.

“I’m not a judge! I’d be convicted for prostitution and homosexuality and ritual impurity and drunkenness and lots of other things, if I ever got to court. Besides, you’re my customer. I’m not going to argue with you, even if you want to pretend to be a giant lizard,” said Tarcuna.

“I am a giant lizard,” I said, and turned into … well, I don’t fit in my hotel room really, but a one-sixth-sized version of me does.

Unfortunately, that’s not a very good way to calm a skittish hoven down.

Fortunately, the hotel management is used to prostitutes screaming loudly in the middle of the afternoon in their rooms. Usually, Tarcuna said afterwards, they’re pretending excitement than actually experiencing terror.

Also fortunately, as soon as I turned back, Tarcuna calmed down to the point of not screaming. She even mostly stopped whimpering a few minutes later. Brave hoven, that.


The Interrogation

Which of course lead to my hired whore questioning me severely.

“All the stories say that there’s something you’re supposed to do when you discover the aliens are secretly invading,” said Tarcuna.

“We’re not invading,” I said. “If we were, we’d be sure to let everyone know so you could surrender conveniently.”

She looked a bit put out. “What makes you think we’d surrender?”

“History, mostly. I can only think of a couple dozen worlds which fought off one dragon invasion successfully, and I think only two of them fought off the next one. Not sure exactly,” I said, and shrugged.

“So you — dragons — usually conquer worlds?”

I nodded my hoven head. “Usually. We’re very good warriors. And very good rulers, so don’t worry.” Tarcuna looked dubious, so I added, “Besides, now that you know we’re coming, you can make plans to fight us off.”

“I’m not sure that anyone is going to listen to me if I tell them,” she said. “It’s not quite obvious that you’re the same sort of creature that was melting mountains and blasting airplanes in Ghemelia.”

“I melted a couple of Khamrous. My fiancés were being upsetting.”

“Oh, dear, I’m sorry to hear that.” Which sounded like a rote answer from a professional sympathist. “Anyways, somehow whores occasionally get turned away when they try to talk to the generals about upcoming invasions.”

I shrugged, and stretched out on the bed. “Well, I’m not really setting out to make life difficult for whoever comes conquering Hove, so I’m not going to fly you to the nearest military science station or whatever and let them study me. I’m not really setting out to make life easy for them, either, so I’m not going to make my vacation troublesome by trying to be all hidey and secrety. Besides, the invasion probably won’t come for dozens of years. Quel Quen’s book isn’t even written yet.” After that I had to explain who Quel Quen is and what he’s doing.

Tarcuna still looked worried. “Well, what should I be doing? Not to the authorities, I’ll figure that out after you’re gone. I saw the films of you melting the mountain, and you just said it was when your fiancés upset you. So will you melt Dorday if you get upset here?”

I drooped, as well as a hoven can droop, which isn’t very well. “You saw what I did when I got annoyed today, too. I didn’t even kill all of the muggers, and I probably should have done. I’m a very lazy lizard.”

“But what should I be doing?”

“You should be doing what I hired you to do! Show me around town and make my vacation fun. Oh, and I promise not to kill you or destroy Dorday on this visit or for a decent time afterwards.” Which she found a lot less comforting than she should have, but it will have to do.

Dragons in the News (Day 55)

Tarcuna read the Magic Flute of Dorday to me this morning. She usually does, since she finishes her breakfast in a few minutes but I need to eat for another hour. I’m cheating the hotel horribly on their all-you-can-eat breakfast.

Giant Monster In Kyongsy Temple

It sounds like something out of a science-fiction thriller movie! But it’s 100% real! Yesterday morning, an absolutely gigantic four-winged lizard monster took over the Kyongsy Temple in Zheribac. We’re not talking about a little thing like an alligator or a giant caiman here. This monster was much larger — reporters at the scene estimate an astounding fifty feet from head to tailbase, plus an extra twenty feet of tail. It was covered in heavy scales, a dark tan in color. Machine-gun fire seemed to bounce right off of its huge flanks and thick scales! This agrees with reports of similar beast-monsters from Ghemelia.

“Dark tan? That must be Arilash. She’s not really that big though. She usually dresses up some, but I don’t suppose there are any drakes around for her to impress. I hope she didn’t hurt too many people.”

“She killed them,” said Tarcuna, and read:

In a terrifying display of what would surely be special effects in a puppet show, but was much more awful in reality, the monster belched out a horrible glob of flame and reduced seven Zheribac Military Police officers to ashes.

“Oh, that’s all right, then,” I said. “We kill small people who try to kill us, more or less always. That’s just basic etiquette. She didn’t get upset and burn the whole city down; that’s nice of her.”

“I suppose you might call it nice,” said Tarcuna, in a voice of veiled disapproval. “It … she? … she wasn’t there very long though.”

But, just like in a puppet show! A glorious, elegant four-winged flying blue-green lizard, elegant with ruffles and long flowing spines, quickly flew in from the coast! The newcomer was smaller and more beautiful! The tan monstrosity growled and snarled! Obviously it hated the newcomer! The two gargantuas fought in the air over the temple, biting and clawing and scorching each other with flames!”

“That’s Ythac. I wonder what they were fighting about?”

“The paper doesn’t say.”

So I asked him. «Hi, sweet drake who hasn’t found me yet! I hear you got Arilash back.»

«I did,» he wrote back.

«The paper says you had a fight with her over some temple.»

«Paper’s right.»

«Why? And why do you sound so dismal?.»

«She was teasing me about Llredh.»

«What happened with Llredh?» I asked. I was worried.

«Nothing really. He’s in hoven shape, he’s staying in hoven shape, he’s in Port-of-Zom, and he’s not leaving. Won’t talk to me really.»

Tarcuna looked at me. “Spotty, are you all right? You went quiet all of a sudden… should I keep reading the paper to you?”

“No,” I told her. “I’m chatting with Ythac — he’s the rescuer in that story. Hold on a moment or six.”

«That’s odd.» I wrote back to Ythac.

«So I went to get Arilash, so he’d have someone to twine. Without mount-fighting me, I mean. Oh, I don’t mean to be rude at you, I’m just worried by Llredh.»

«I haven’t been very good at my fiancée’s duties, and Arilash is, I know that. Wait, did you know where Arilash was?»

«I know where all of you are. You’re in hoven form in Dorday, in Trest.»

«How did you know? I thought I’d notice if you used a finding spell on me, even if I couldn’t stop it.»

« I’ve known since you got there. I wasn’t casting finding spells for you, I was casting them for your name. The words ‘Jyothky Meragathium’ are written exactly one place in this universe, and that’s in Dorday.»

«You can look for a word? like that? That’s clever! Do you want to marry me?»

«Sure, I’ll marry you. Usually it’s no good, most words show up in a grand grand of places or more, so I have to be extra-devious to find any of them, much less the one I want. I know some other tricks. I found you five ways, so if you slip off, I’ll use one of the others on you and find you again.»

«So, do I have to come home?»

«Not unless you can be more tempting to get Llredh back than Arilash can.»

«I don’t think so, for which apologies. Llredh doesn’t seem the least bit interested in me, no matter now much oil I use.»

«Well, enjoy your vacation some more. I plan to find you last,» he wrote.

“Poor Ythac. A friend is snubbing him,” I said to Tarcuna. “Is there more in the paper?”

This is probably one of the cluster of mountain-melting monsters that appeared a few weeks ago in outer Ghemelia. Scientists are uncertain about what could have induced it to move out of its home territory. Military officers in Trest and Zheribac are uncertain about how it could have flown so far without being detected.

“Nothing to it. Arilash is good at all sorts of travel spells,” I said.

“I don’t know about that. The paper said that the Zheribac army didn’t see it. Zheribac hasn’t hired Ythac, has it?”

“He didn’t mention that they had,” I said.

“I hope not! Zheribac is one of the Alliance of Freedom!”

“I thought you liked freedom…?”

“The Alliance of Freedom isn’t about freedom! It’s about making sure that we can’t defend ourselves!” she said.

Which didn’t make any sense, so I went back for another bowl of pancakes in sour cream. “Eating for six or eight hours a day and still being hungry all the time is getting tiresome. I should go have a real meal and then not eat for a couple days.”

“I can’t imagine you not eating for a couple days.”

“You’ll see. Why does the Alliance of Freedom not want you to defend yourselves?”

“When we started building the Peace Everywhere Array, the rest of the world was very jealous. Maybe also afraid. Stupid of them, we weren’t going to conquer anyone. But we wanted to be able to defend ourselves, and to stop wars. With the Peace Everywhere Array, we can shoot anywhere in Hove, enough to break a city or ruin an army. Nobody can attack us. Nobody can attack anybody, or we’ll interfere and stop them. That’s all they’re for.”

“How do they shoot through the Godaxle? Or the suns?”

“Oh, they don’t. There are, I don’t know, eighty-odd emplacements, and together they cover pretty much the whole world. Ghemelia tried building one itself, but the Peace Everywhere gun in Muld destroyed theirs before it was much built. They tried to build another one, though, so we had to put a stop to that, and get rid of Uncle Holder altogether.”

“As you like,” I said. She thought it was true, but it didn’t sound much like what Murghal had said that he thought was true. I didn’t feel like arguing though. “Is there any more of that article?”

In the end, the noble blue-green monster defeated the vicious tan one, and chased it far, far out to sea. They fought a huge battle over the ocean. Each one slew the other, and their corpses fell into the depths of the sea, never to rise again.

«You and Arilash are dead, right?»

«No.»

«The Dorday paper says you are. Drowned in the sea.»

«I’m fine. Arilash is fine. We just went swimming. Please stop teasing me, or I’ll come over there and bite your wings to shreds.»

That’s not like Ythac at all. «I apologize! Just telling you funny things from here!»

«Oh. OK.»

“He says he’s not dead. I believe him. If he were dead he’d be in a much better mood. I’ve never heard him so annoyed.”

“What, do you have a telephone inside your head?”

“A language spell. We can write words in each others’ minds.”

“That must be wonderful, being able to talk to your true love whenever you want.”

“True love? My best friend, maybe.”

“But you’re going to marry him, you said?”

“I don’t know yet!” So then I had to explain how mating flights work, which took another three plates of breakfast.

“So you’re supposed to go off somewhere and have a lot of sex?” she asked. “With the boy you’re going to marry, and five other boys too?”

“Exactly,” I said. “Six other ones for me, but that’s nontraditional and mostly a mistake.”

“What if you get pregnant?”

“I won’t get pregnant, that’s a mammal trick and I’m not a mammal despite that I’ve got an udder like yours today. If I lay any fertile eggs, I’ll burn them, of course. My husband should be one of my dragonet’s fathers. But that’s usually what we do anyways, burn fertile eggs I mean. We live a very long time, we don’t want to have many dragonets.”

Tarcuna waved her hands. “Back up, back up. You lost me at ‘one of my child’s fathers’. How many fathers does a dragonet have?”

“Three. Well, one to three, but usually we figure on three,” I said around a mouthful of steak and pea pie.

“I’m going to ignore the biology weirdness there. Any biology that has giant flying lizards that breathe fire is crazy. But I know sex. How does the sex part of that work?”

So I explained about how drakes have three hemipenises each, small, medium, and large, and I don’t but I have claspers. And when a drake and a dragoness love each other very much, or at least are willing to tolerate each other’s close company for long enough to assuage some lust, they can …

“I sort of get the idea,” said Tarcuna. “All three male members go into the same female member?”

“That’s why it’s claspers. I’d squeeze them closed on the smaller ones,” I said. “Or spread them wider for the large one.”

“Convenient, that, though I do pretty well for a wide range of sizes myself without any strange appendages. But I guess what I really don’t understand is … if a dragonet has three different men — drakes — as fathers, and you’re married to one of the three, do you go have adulterous sex with the other two?”

“Oh, heavens, no. Dragons don’t do adultery,” I said, reflexively checking my veriception blocks even though Tarcuna doesn’t have that sense. “My ova should be two-thirds fertilized at the end of the mating flight. That’s the real point of having sex with all my fiancés so much now. Well, that and trying all the drakes out.”

“You want three fathers for your dragonet? More to the point, your husband doesn’t mind sharing with two others?” asked Tarcuna.

I sighed. “It doesn’t matter that much for dragoness babies. But drakes with three fathers have a better chance of being all pretty and fancy than drakes with fewer. That’s very important. Pretty drakes have a better chance of getting married. So yes. My parents mostly hatch eggs fertilized by Cterion — he’s my father — and the top two drakes in their mating flight. Whom they haven’t seen for several grosses of years, in some cases. I mean, several-and-a-half centuries.”

“That’s pretty strange. Male people don’t like the thought that their wife’s children aren’t theirs. Besides, how do you even tell who the fathers are?”

“Analysis spells. Not very hard ones,” I said.

“Spotty, I don’t know that I exactly believe all your stories,” she said. “Maybe you’re a person. You’re a shape-changing lizard, I think I got that part the other night. But I do know love and jealousy, it’s part of my job, and what you’re saying makes no sense.”

“Why on Mhel — or Hove even — would love matter?” I had to ask.

“Well, on Hove, it is customary in most civilized parts of the world to get engaged to someone you love,” said Tarcuna. Then, a bit archly, “Should you be lucky enough to fall in love with someone to whom you can become engaged, of course. Not everyone does.”

“That’s utterly backwards. I need each of my children to have three fathers, and falling in love with one drake would only make that so much more awkward. Besides, I don’t have that much leeway about who I get to marry. It would be unspeakably awkward if I fell deeply and truly in love with Csirnis, say, and then came in second and had Arilash snatch him up first,” I said. “No, our way is best: marry first, and fall in love with the one you marry.”

Tarcuna rubbed her cheeks. “I suppose it sounds convenient if you can manage it. It doesn’t make much sense to me, emotionally, but I suppose it doesn’t have to.”

I couldn’t force the thought of loving someone to make sense to me either, so I pretended to have the secret wisdom: “Just act like they’re true and all will be well.”

Coda: Swimming

Dragons shouldn’t swim.

Swimming is just like flying, except that it’s a lot more chilling. Also a lot more effort. Flapping your wings underwater is hard. And dangerous — you can actually break wingbones if you do it wrongly and strongly enough. Also you can’t breathe water.

Unfortunately, most dragons love to swim. I don’t know why. Osoth is the only other dragon in the mating flight who has the proper opinion of water. In his case I wonder if it might be a necromancer’s affectation. As if he’s saying “The dessicated liches of the animated dead can’t swim, so in solidarity I shall not swim either.”

I don’t care what his reasons might be. I’m going to award him a fiancé point, right now, in absentia.

Worm (Day 60)

Today wasn’t the best day of the vacation, really.

Tarcuna had been a bit odd all morning, glancing at me and looking a bit twitchy and smelling a lot anxious. I don’t know that much about hoven moods or needs. I asked once or twice, and got vague little answers that didn’t mean anything to me.

In midmorning, we were strolling down the Boulevard of the Orange Pine Trees, nearly deserted at that hour, and Tarcuna turned to me. “Spotty … hold me. Please, please, just hold me…” and tried to grab me in her arms without waiting for me to answer. She smelled terrified and ashamed. I don’t much like to be grabbed that much, especially not for a small person’s convenience, so I stepped back.

She had worn a low-cut green tunic with buttons down the front, and had left the lower buttons open. A forked grey-pink spiky grey appendage squirmed out of the open slit, writhing around blindly. At first I wondered if it was some odd part of her, but I didn’t have any such appendage in my hoven body and at the time we were the same shape. Hoven blood joined the smells, and something else complicated and musky that I didn’t recognize.

And it proclaimed, “I can conquer you in your hoven form” to dangersense. Making it far and away the most dangerous thing I have seen on Hove that I’m not engaged to.

I didn’t particularly feel like being conquered, especially not by something small and ugly. So I spat a bit of tightly-woven lightning at it, and it died. That made it stop being dangerous, though it was even uglier half-scorched.

Tarcuna didn’t die. She just staggered and started laughing and crying at the same time.

“Tarcuna? Could you explain yourself to me?” I asked her. “Maybe in a way that doesn’t make it look like you tried to attack me, so that I don’t have to kill you?”

“Cyoziworm. They’re real.” She hiccuped a bit, and scrubbed tears from her eyes. “I’m wormridden … I was wormridden. You killed Bopo. Now I’m free. For like ten minutes.”

Which made just about no sense to me. “So this cyoziworm thing was attacking me, and you weren’t?” Polite fictions are very important to dragons.

“Yes,” she said.

“That’s fine, it sounds like I don’t have to kill you. But why was it inside you?”

“You did kill me though. It poisons me when it dies. I can feel it burning in my blood. … Thank you. Really. I wanted to die for a long time, but I couldn’t, the worm wouldn’t let me.”

That sounded like something Osoth would do if he were in a very bad mood. “Hey! I didn’t give you permission to die either! I hired you for another week!”

She started falling over and hugging herself. “Ow, that hurts so much … sorry for dying on you … sorry for living at all…”

Well, that was frustrating. I was so careful not to kill her twice in two minutes, once with the lightning and again by giving her an excuse, and here she was dying anyways. So I put the Arcane Anodyne in her. It filled her and flooded out, like it had for Churdle, and she straightened up and blinked at me.

“What was that?”

“A healing spell. I really didn’t give you permission to die, and I really am going to enforce that if I have to.” I hate having my friends die on me, especially when they don’t have me do it and don’t have a proper suicide party or something.

She looked at me with huge watery eyes. “OK, you can rescue me.” She looked at the dead cyoziworm hanging out of her udder. “What can you do about that?”

I took off her tunic and undershirt, and looked. The cyoziworm had protruded some two feet of its body out of an often-opened cut on the underside of her udder. More of the worm was inside. The worm was covered with little retractile hooks and spikes, all extended in death. Pulling it out would rip Tarcuna’s chest to shreds, but the Arcane Anodyne should fix that.

So I tugged it gently. Tarcuna screamed in agony and fell unconscious. The worm broke in half right where it left her body. The broken bit whimpered its danger to me, that it was covered with an oozing poison.

This was very awkward.

I put the Arcane Anodyne into Tarcuna again, and she woke up again. The spell wasn’t overflowing her much this time, though. “Please, Spotty, just let me die.”

“Shan’t,” I snapped.

“It hurts, it hurts!” she wailed. Here and there along the boulevard, hovens were coming out of their shops and cafes to see what the commotion was.

“It’s going to hurt more, I’m afraid.” I don’t know how to render a hoven unfeeling. I know three useless spells that are supposed to do the opposite and never work on me, and with a week’s work I could probably turn one of them backwards. “I’m going to try to knock you out so you don’t feel much.” I wrapped my hukuchô around her unendurably tight, and held her arms and legs, and she screamed a few times and her mind fled. I hoped I hadn’t broken it too much.

Well, she was dying from the poison again, so I put the Arcane Anodyne into her again. Hoven fingers aren’t much good for surgery, and I don’t like surgical weapons any more than martial ones. So I turned into a horse-sized, gracile verson of myself, with short sharp-edged claws. This caused some incoherent screaming and yelping from the watching hovens.

I started slicing her udder, from the bottom, trying to open her up enough so that I could lift the rest of the worm out. Her flesh parted quite nicely under my scalpelsome claws — I’ll have to remember that if I’m ever fighting something scaleless.

She started dying again at my first incision. So I put the Arcane Anodyne into her. Then she wasn’t dying very much, but her udder had healed. Catching my fingers partway inside, even. This was very awkward.

Well, if her body was going to do that, I would just have to work fast. I sliced a deep valley in her flesh with one hand. Tarcuna started to die again; I’m not sure whether the wound or the poison was worse. I cut off a chunk of cyoziworm with the other hand, and scooped it out as quick as I could, ripping a big hole in her left lung by mistake. I poured the Arcane Anodyne on her as fast as I could, and her wounds closed.

All around me, hovens were screaming.

Beneath me, Tarcuna started dying of poison again.

Time for another incision, another slice, another Arcane Anodyne. That time I didn’t get the whole bit of cyoziworm out of her, and as her flesh closed over it I knew it was pouring out more poison into her. I wanted to cast Arcane Anodyne again, but I had cast it three times already this heartbeat, and didn’t have enough force for a fourth. I could cast the Great Titan Sanitarium with what was left, and I did. It didn’t do very much good.

Then my astral heart beat again. I have never, ever been so glad.

I started in on a horrible rhythm. A deep incision, wiggling my scalpelly-clawed right hand which had been trapped in her often-healed flesh. A quick grab for a bit of worm with my left hand, trying above all to get it out of her. The Arcane Anodyne so she wouldn’t die. Another incision, another grab, another the Anodyne. A third set. Hold still a moment, my right hand still buried in her breast, and cast the Sanitarium and hope that it would stop her from dying for a bit longer. A regret that I didn’t have the strength in my thezô to cast the Anodyne again. A heartbeat, filling my not-quite-adequate thezô, and time to start again.

It wasn’t quite enough though. Tarcuna’s vitality rose eleven lengths from each round of spells, but fell twelve from surgery and poison. I hoped I would get to the end of the worm soon, or she’d die despite all my work.

Then, a mumble of danger from down the street: five gendarmes waving pistols, shouting “Monster! Away from that woman!”

Well, that didn’t make any sense. Can’t they tell the difference between combat and surgery?

I didn’t want to argue with them though. I battered at the street with my hukuchô, scattering hovens all about. Still, the Boulevard of the Orange Pine Trees was a bad place for surgery — pine needles kept getting into my patient, for one extra problem. I could hear the howling of emergency vehicles coming towards me, too. Trying to repair Tarcuna with pine needles and bullets flying all over seemed to make a hard job impossible.

So (the Sanitarium) the next heartbeat, (the Anodyne) I didn’t do any more surgery. I just scooped (the Anodyne!) her up in my left claw, ripping deep surgically-useless furrows in her back (the Anodyne), and leapt clumsily into the sky. The shock of the takeoff worked its own mischief on her, and my best available answer for that (the Sanitarium) wasn’t much good. But we were in the sky (heartbeat) and another healing spell (the Anodyne) healed her back and kept her from dying all the way. Again.

We landed on the flat top of a nearby bank building. I set to work rather desparately. I didn’t know how much worm was left in her, or how many more healing spells she could endure.

Four more heartbeats, and I got to the end of the worm’s main body, a long tapered tip slithered up next to her esophagus. I thought for a moment that that was enough.

It wasn’t enough. A dozen long hooked probes extended from the tip into Tarcuna’s brain. That’s presumably how it had conquered her, and how it had intended to conquer me. It made the surgery that much harder, too. I’m willing to rip breasts and lungs and livers fairly casually and heal them back, but brains are much more delicate. Now I had to cut twice: a bit careless slice opening the side of her face, then a more careful slice exposing just a bit of brain, hopefully where a probe was. Then grab the worm-bit, careful not to rip her brain any more than I had to, quick before the wound killed her, and get my hand out of the way quick before the Anodyne trapped it inside her brain. I didn’t dare use the Sanitarium spell to heal such a wound, it’s just not that good. After a while, I skipped surgery on the second the Anodyne casting, hoping that the extra healing magic would keep her more alive, even at the cost of slowing the surgery down.

Nineteen heartbeats and ten probes later, the first fighter plane came roaring noise and roaring danger across the sky.

I couldn’t imagine how I was going to do brain surgery and protect myself from missiles and rays at the same time. So I skipped the spare Anodyne and breathed long lightning at the plane’s left wing. I was hoping to just cripple it, since it technically hadn’t attacked me. But that’s where it stored some of its bombs or fuel or something. It caught fire rather impressively, and bits of blazing metal splashed over the city two miles away.

Such a botchery of a day.

The other eleven fighter planes curved around a bit. (I didn’t understand at the time, but the television report said that they were waiting for orders from their sky-admiral. They knew something of our breath weapons from the Kyongsy Temple, but didn’t know about lightning.)

I rushed the rest of the surgery. The last probe was buried deep in her brain, and the eleven planes had encircled me and were coming from eleven different directions. I healed Tarcuna with my hand stuck at the base of her brain holding the end of the probe, waited for a heartbeat, and tug and the Anodyne — tug and the Anodyne — tug and the Anodyne, ripping the core of her brain and healing it as quickly and fully as I could manage. On the third tug, the probe was free, out of her brain, and I could slice the side of her face and lift it out in the usual way.

I took a heartbeat to watch and listen. Tarcuna was still dying between the Anodynes, but with most of the worm out of her and no surgery, the spells were actually making progress. I took Tarcuna in my forepaws and put the Esrret-Sky-Painted on us, and flew off the bank.

Then the fighter planes came, and circled overhead in much confusion.

I flew us to our hotel, took a hoven form, disguised us with illusions, levitated a bit so we wouldn’t leave bloody footprints, and carried Tarcuna to our room. Our bathtub was quite large. I filled it with hot water and soap, and started the laborious business of scrubbing a vast amount of hoven blood out of both our fur. I still needed to put the Arcane Anodyne into Tarcuna: every minute at first, every six minutes by the time we were clean. Lots of poison had been spilled into her, and I had left little bits of deliquescing cyoziworm all over too.

Halfway through the bath, Tarcuna opened her eyes. “I’m free? I’m alive?”

“You’re free, you’re alive, you’re still needing lots of attention to keep you that way. Rest now. Later you must explain many things to me.”

She closed her eyes again, and let me clean her and heal her.

Sometimes my hobby of sheltering small people is rather too much work.

Or maybe, rather a lot of work. I was glad to have done it.

L’Après-Surgerie (Day 61)

Tarcuna stirred in my arms. I had held her most of the night, putting the Arcane Anodyne into her every few minutes. Boring spell, that. I’d rather not cast it so many dozens of times in one day. By the morning, she only needed it every hour or so. With careful use of the alarm clock — now that’s an interesting device! — I had managed to get a bit of sleep.

At 11:32, according to that fascinating alarm clock, Tarcuna stirred and awoke. “Spotty? Is that you?”

“I’m afraid so,” I said. I admit to being a bit snippish, probably because of missing sleep.

“I’m free, aren’t I?” Her voice was low and slow, and her consonants were muddy.

“No more worm in you. I spent far too much of yesterday arranging for that.”

She tried to sit up. “My right arm, it’s not working…” She wiggled her fingers, but her arm was limp.

“My mistake. I had to pull bits of worm out of your brain. I was mostly able to heal you afterwards, but I couldn’t do everything.” I put the slow healing spells into her. “There. You’ll probably be better in a year or two.”

“Oh … Bopo’s gone, you said?”

“That’s the worm? Very gone. I killed it with lightning, and broke it into a hundred forty-four pieces. It was sort of disintegrating or melting while I was taking it out of you. Nasty thing, that,” I said.

“I’m glad it’s gone. Nobody ever survives their cyoziworm dying.”

“I believe that. You almost didn’t, with a whole dragon working full-time to save you. Now you owe me, though.”

She rolled over and used her left arm to help her sit up. “What do I owe you? I don’t have much.”

“An explanation, to start with. What was that thing? Why was it inside you?”

“It’s a cyoziworm, like in the stories,” she said. “Not the strangest stories, but the rest are pretty true.”

“I’ve never heard the stories. I’m really not from around here.”

“Oh… It’s a parasite, a mind parasite. Nobody believes in them, but they’re real. We, I mean the wormridden, we didn’t let anyone investigate them much. When it’s in you, keeping it safe and happy is the most important thing for you,” she said.

“They control you? Are they intelligent?”

“I don’t think they’re exactly intelligent. They understand some things … Bopo knew that you were a very appealing potential host because you’re so strong and fast, but he didn’t understand that you weren’t really a hoven. But he did sort of control me.” She shuddered. “It’s like there was a little cup in my mind. Not really but that’s how it felt to lots of us. When Bopo wanted something, he’d drip in that little cup, I could feel each drop. When the cup was full I would obey, I couldn’t stop it then, and there was no way to empty the cup but to obey him. He’d do that when he was hungry. He did that when he wanted to put an egg in you, too. I knew you’d probably kill me but there was no way to explain that to him, he just dripped and dripped and I had to do it.”

I said, “That sounds awful.”

“At the Red Spire we’d just cry and cry after our worms made us do something. Mostly it was just feeding, or letting them mate with each other,” she said. “Sometimes it was spawning, giving a uninfested hoven a worm to control them. That was awful. When the Spire wasn’t busy the other wormridden would come and hold us or ride us. That helped a little.”

“Wait, you weren’t the only one with a worm there?”

“Nearly everyone there had one. It’s the nicest whorehouse in the city to work in … it’s not run for anyone’s profit, it’s run to keep our worms comfortable. Safe, too. We had four bouncers, they weren’t wormridden, they’d come and rescue you if any of the johns gave you trouble.”

“So it’s not all the public friends, just you and your colleagues? Just the ones I found?”

“Maybe some whores are. I don’t know. The deputy mayor is wormridden, and he makes things smooth for the Red Spire. We could advertise, if we were discreet about it. The other public friends can’t, they don’t have important dignitaries as allies, mostly,” said Tarcuna.

“Yuck… are a lot of hovens wormridden?”

“Not very many. One in ten thousand? A hundred thousand? We don’t encourage them to breed. If there were too many, the clean hovens would probably figure out how to find us and … kill us, I guess. The stories about the wormridden are really horrible. The parts about drinking blood and turning people into slaves are true.”

“Drinking blood?”

“The worms do that. They’ll stick their forky end out a bit and slurp, oh, maybe a half-pint or a pint. They numb you, you don’t feel anything…”

I don’t feel anything anyways.”

“Oh, sorry, sorry, I mean, the victim doesn’t feel anything even if they can feel normally. And they don’t remember very clearly either. They’re sick and woozy the next day. Lots of us are whores, it’s easiest to let your worm feed on someone while you’re fucking them up close and tight. And lots of us didn’t really care about ourselves after the worm got us, so whoring is easy.” She curled up and cried. “Bopo wanted to feed every seven or eight days, he was always quick and quiet about it, he liked fat boys best, I knew he was hungry when he’d make me try to get one, and now he’s dead and you killed him …” She started trying to hit me with her working hand, clumsily.

That didn’t make any sense. “Why are you punching me? Didn’t you want to be free?”

She stopped, and wiped her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry, I did want to, I’m glad you killed him. He was the only thing I cared about for a long time though. I have to remember that I’m me again now, I’m not used to it.”

“Well, I’ll count that attack as Bopo trying to get revenge from beyond the grave. Or at least, from beyond the rooftop of the bank,” I said. That saved her life again. She didn’t notice, which is just as well.

“Oh … do you want to know anything else?”, she asked, snuffling on the sheet a bit.

“Probably, but I can’t think of it now. Want breakfast? I’m as hungry as you’ve ever seen me.”

“Good gods, that’s terrifying. Did you really skip dinner for me?”

“I did, ’cause you were too busy trying to die every few minutes for me to have a proper meal. Hold on…” I put the Arcane Anodyne into her again, sooner than absolutely necessary. “Need help getting dressed?”

She did need help. In retrospect, it seems very odd that I had to take care of my hired whore after saving her life and personality. But her arm really wasn’t working very well, even after I put the Rose Rescaler into it, and I wanted breakfast and company.

We went to the hotel’s restaurant, but breakfast was over, and lunch isn’t a buffet. So we walked across the street to Porphirio’s, which has a lunch buffet. It’s not very good, but Tarcuna wasn’t really up for walking very far. I refused to carry her plate, though; I offered a waiter an extra dozen thurnies to do it. Which is Not How It Is Done At Porphirio’s, as they explained when they tried to return my money. You’re supposed to ask for a favor, and leave an extra couple of thurnies at the end of the meal. I was not in much of a mood to tolerate backwards hoven customs, though, and flicked the waiter with my hukuchô, just a tiny bit, and he stopped arguing.

Tarcuna was very clumsy, trying to eat with her unaccustomed hand. After she spilled the third bite of steak and pea pie in her lap, I said, “Do you know where one hires a friend in this city?”

Her fur went flat. “You’re firing me?”

“No, I’m going to hire you a friend, to help take care of you. It’s not dignified for me to do it,” I said. Not that I’ve managed to keep much dignity on this trip, but there are limits.

“Oh! You don’t mean a friend like in a prostitute. Maybe a nurse?”

I stared at what I had learned of Trestean. “Right, that’s the word for it. A nurse.”

“You can take the nurse’s wages out of my tip,” she said. “Assuming I’m still getting a tip. I haven’t been much fun.”

“You haven’t been?”

“Well, you’ve spent two days so far taking care of me, and I haven’t even given you a single orgasm,” she said.

“I’ve had a great time. More excitement and less luxury than I was thinking, but that’s not a bad thing for a dragon. And I couldn’t notice an orgasm if I got one; I don’t want to try; that would just be miserable.” I thought a bit. “I’m going to give you the rest of my money with you when I leave. I won’t need it anyways.”

Then I spent the next two plates of Porphirio’s world-famous pie trying to get her to stop thanking me. It’s just as convenient for me as throwing the money away. And my fiancés would tease me horribly if I brought any treasure back — they’re supposed to do that — and especially ugly treasure. It’d be different if I were stealing a world-famous gold and niobium statue or something.

Back in the hotel, she called around and found a slightly shady nurse agency who didn’t ask too many questions. While we waited for the nurse, we read the paper.

Voresc Monster Kills Woman, Warplane In Dorday

One of the winged lizards from the Khamrou Voresc, or another of its kind, raped, tortured, and killed an unidentified woman in the Boulevard of the Orange Pine Trees yesterday!

“Oh, clawrasps! How can I get them to correct that? It’s not rape! I paid for sex with you!” I hissed.

She giggled, and said “Haven’t gotten it. That makes it larceny too, on my part.” She put the paper down to move her useless right arm into a more comfortable position, then resumed reading.

The horrible monster, like the one in the Kyongsy Temple, made its wicked way to our fair city undetected by military surveillance! In an editorial we urge the consuls to increase patrols of our nation’s borders, even if this requires withdrawal of some troops from Ghemelia!

“So far I can’t argue. Not only didn’t they detect me, I looted them a bit,” I said.

“You’re a horrible monster? ”

“Sure!”

It was first sighted at approximately 10:15 in the morning, by Poure Drallinet, the proprietor of a cafe on the Boulevard. He — the monster, not Poure! — had grabbed a woman and ripped off her upper garments! It may seem the stuff of puppet shows, but it is reality! Reality, in our own fair city, just as it was in the Kyongsy Temple!

“They’re remarkably accurate. I did rip off your upper garments.”

Then the wicked beast ripped her fair udder with its massive claws!

“Hmph! They were very delicate claws.”

Poure called the constabulary. Five gendarmes were nearby, wire circles polished and shining, ready and waiting for just such an emergency as this! They ran up and fired their pistols into the air to scare the beast off! And — it ran! It fled! It dared not confront the might of Dorday’s Finest!

“Well, I didn’t want to do major surgery while they were shooting at me,” I mumbled. It did look like I had run off.

“I’m not calling you coward! You’re as brave as anything as far as I’m concerned.”

“Focussed, maybe. Devoted.”

But when it fled, it snatched up its poor victim’s hopefully-senseless and probably-moribund body! It flew to the top of the First Dorday Bank, where it landed and perched and resumed its grisly and protracted torture! By this time the alarm had been sounded in Querbico Air Force Base. Two wings of fighter planes scrambled — they were in the air almost before the word went out! They zoomed towards Dorday, where the monster’s tormentations continued out of reach of the gendarmes. But the terrible beast showed unexpected forms of viciousness! Just as if in a puppet-show, just like the Kyongsy Temple monster, it blasted one of our brave fighter planes out of the sky, exploding it in a terrible burst of flame! Three skymen were slain instantly! A huge ball of burning jet fuel spilled upon the Narwalla Noodle Works, igniting the building!

“Is that true?” Tarcuna asked me shakily.

“Probably, they’ve been pretty good so far,” I said.

“You blasted a fighter plane?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You killed three soldiers?”

“That’s what the paper says. I was more trying to keep you from dying than paying much attention.”

“You killed three people to save my life?” She didn’t sound very happy.

“Yes. They were going to be shooting at me. I didn’t think I could finish the surgery while they were shooting. It was hard enough as it was.”

“You killed three brave soldiers who were trying to rescue me, a wormridden whore.”

I hissed at her. “Exactly. You understand. Could you be a proper hireable biddable whore and do your job and read me the rest of the article?” That at least reminded her of her position, and she went back to reading. Her voice was terrible, between the leftover brain damage and the considerable distress.

The surviving eleven jets performed an encircling maneuver. As they closed on the leviathan, it turned tail and ran! It gobbled down the woman! It leapt off the roof the bank, and vanished into the trees!

“Did you kill anyone else?”

“I don’t know! Finish reading the thing!”

“There’s not much more.”

Beware! The monster is still at large! Seven wings of the Air Force have been patrolling over Dorday, but at press time there has been no sign of it! Patrols of gendarmes have been searching sewers and basements, but it has not been located!

“Why would I hide in a sewer? I can’t feel, but I can sure smell!”

We call upon all loyal citizens of Dorday to report menacing incidents and possible sightings of the monster to the proper authorities! We call upon them to drive the monster forth! We of Trest need no assistance from any noble blue-green monster — we are brave and mighty, and wholly capable of defending ourselves!

“They’ll get their noble blue-green monster when he’s good and ready to fetch me,” I said.

Tarcuna wasn’t listening. She climbed into the bed and was crying into a pillow, mumbling about how her life wasn’t worth that price. I told her that I didn’t kill them because of her, just because they were going to attack me, and besides I didn’t mean to kill them, just cripple the plane, it’s their stupid for keeping explosives in the wings of their jet. That turned out not to be a very comforting thing to say to a hoven. I was quite tired of comforting her by then, so I read more of the paper, all the editorials urging better defense against me.

After a while the nurse came, a tall shaggy red-furred sort of hoven man, and I rather snappishly explained a bit and handed him a couple thousand thurnies. I left him to take care of Tarcuna, and went stomping around in the city. Well, walking around trying to enjoy some of the sights. And watching the fighter planes zoom around overhead looking for the real me. And being cross. It wasn’t nearly as much fun to do it alone.

When I got back to the hotel, the tall shaggy nurse had arranged a sling for Tarcuna, and was working on voice exercises. She didn’t sound much better to me, but the nurse said that she’d made some progress in just a few hours and would probably recover most of her speech. Tarcuna was back to being cheerful and optimistic for her own reasons. Or, maybe, she was being cheerful and optimistic for the first time since she had been taken by the worm.

Summoned to Port-of-Zom (Day 62)

As Tarcuna and I were eating breakfast the next day, Ythac wrote to me. «Are you awake yet?»

«Awake and eating delicious steak and pea pie at the world-famous Porphirio’s Buffet. Well, eating steak and pea pie at Porphirio’s Buffet.» I wrote to him, and told Tarcuna that I’d be chatting a bit and she should stop reading the paper to me.

«I have to ask — were you raping that girl, or eating her? And if you were raping her, why aren’t you copulating with your fiancés instead of poor hoven maidens?»

«I what your pardon?»

«The newspaper said you were either raping or eating some unidentified woman on a rooftop in Dorday two days ago. That was you, wasn’t it? Or are there some other dragons in Dorday?»

«I wasn’t doing that. I was doing surgery.»

«On a rooftop? While blasting warplanes out of the sky?»

«Just one warplane,» I said.

«How many hovens have you killed so far?» he asked.

«Just five in Dorday. I think eight total.»

«Are you and Arilash having a contest to see who can kill more? Or even, who can kill fewer?» he asked.

«No, nothing like that. I’m just being a tourist.»

«Dorday is quite a spectacular vacation spot indeed, where tourists do surgery and fight warplanes at the same time!»

«Well, I think they mostly don’t. My native guide got into trouble, is all.» I wrote.

«What kind of native guide needs to be attacked by warplanes?»

«If I let you read my diary, will you promise not to come get me immediately? It’s got my hotel and room number in it.»

«Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium, Suite 406,» he told me.

«I’m going to chew some of your ruffles off next time I see you,» I told him, and fumbled around with my diary and the Devourer of Books and my end of Ythac’s the Horizonal Quill until he could read the whole thing.

«So you hired a whore, didn’t fornicate at all, and did impromptu major surgery on her?» he asked.

«Exactly! Aren’t I horny and honorable and brave and resourceful?»

«You’re buried up to your bulging eyes in Uplifting, that’s what you are. Uruunma would be proud of you. Actually even Uruunma would think you were kind of extreme.»

«It’s not like I’m ordinarily much of an Uplifter. Besides, the five I killed weren’t exactly Uplifted.»

«Wait a minute. This cyoziworm, it was dangerous to you in hoven form?»

I remembered as hard as I could. «It seemed like it could conquer me … like if its egg got its hooks into my brain-in-hoven-form, it would control me just as much as it controlled Tarcuna. It wasn’t so hard to avoid it. It was pretty obvious to dangersense, it didn’t move fast, and it wasn’t a bit tough or smart. I don’t think it could control me in my real shape. It’s not big enough.»

«Llredh doesn’t have dangersense,» he wrote back. «He’s staying in hoven form, refusing to leave Port-of-Zom, being all protective and Uplifty about some hovens there. Says he doesn’t care about the mating flight, or getting married, or collecting any loot.» He scribbled a bit, hesitating, before writing «Won’t even mount-fight me. He’s never refused before. Says he doesn’t want to risk injury. Think he’s wormridden?»

«Can you scry on him and find out? Look inside for a worm shaped like the figure Y, about three feet long, with spikes and ruffles.»

«I can’t do that from here. I told you I wouldn’t drag you home from your vacation, and I won’t. I am going to drag you to Port-of-Zom. Bring your whore too, I need her more than you even.»

«I’m going to chew all your wings off,» I told him, in the Grand Draconic verbal mode indicating a fictional future.

«After we rescue Llredh. Really, Jyothky, this is important. You can have as much vacation as you want after he’s safe.»

«Fine. You owe me,» I said. «So does he, if he’s really wormridden.»

“OK, Tarcuna. My plans just changed. We’re going to Port-of-Zom,” I said.

“Port-of-Zom, in Vlechinse? Isn’t that a rather grotty shipping and manufacturing city?” she asked. “What’s there for us?”

“My fiancé, wormridden I think. Feel like rescuing someone else from the cyoziworms?”

“Everyone, if I could.”

“We’ll start with Llredh.”

I fussed privately about honor and etiquette, and decided to be sensible. We stripped the bed from Suite 406, and bought some rope and carabiners and a mountain-climber’s harness from a sporting goods store. We went to the top of the bank — the bloodstain was still there — and I turned back into me. We tied a couple loops of rope around my neck, snapped Tarcuna on with carabiners, and wrapped her in blankets. I cast the Scratch-the-Sky — I don’t know any better spells to speed up flight. It’s not really nice to leave big aching cuts in the middle air, so nobody uses that spell in a civilized world unless they really need to. But this isn’t a civilized world, there’s nobody flying around but hovens, and I was in a hurry.

I also put the Esrret-Sky-Painted on, but that doesn’t work very well if there’s a big aerial wound pointing right at an invisible me. The fighter planes from Dorday figured it out pretty fast. Also they figured out the practical way that flying through the Scratch-the-Sky‘s scratch would wreck their planes and they should fly to the side of it. I had to give up on the Scratch-the-Sky, and just fly along at a leisurely just-my-wings sort of pace, and watch the fighter planes zoom past me trying to find me.

After a while they gave up or got very far away, so I put the Scratch-the-Sky back on. Which upset a great many hovens, since I was flying near a big city — Tublier, according to Tarcuna. Many, many warplanes were already in the sky, and most of them started flying towards me as soon as they could see the wound. I tossed the Scratch-the-Sky away again, and landed, and caught and ate a horse and a half, in a barn, while the Trestean military worked exceedingly hard to keep me away from a city that I didn’t actually want to visit that day.

«Where are you?» screamed Ythac, underlining his letters three times in my imagination.

«In Tublier, in Trest. Not quite halfway there.»

«Well, Arilash and I have been here for two hours

«Well, Arilash has adult travel spells. I’ve only got a stupid little baby the Scratch-the-Sky, and I can’t even use it half the time.»

We snarled at each other, and promised to gnaw each others’ tails off after we’d rescued Llredh. Ythac is such an anxious mommy-drake sometimes. It’s not as if a wormridden Llredh is going to get any worse. He couldn’t hurt himself if he wanted to, not in any way that would be bad for the worm anyways. Ythac was unconvinced.

I took care of cloacal matters that I hadn’t wanted to deal with in hoven form — if it’s slow going in, it’ll be slow going out, and that’s not the fun direction. And raided the farmhouse for food for Tarcuna, who didn’t want burnt horse. I didn’t want her going hungry, she was still recovering. If Ythac wants my expert services — or my public friend’s expert services — he’ll have to have them on my terms.

Coda: Carrying Small People

Dragons are not zeppelins! We do not generally take passengers. Ordinary honor and politeness says, if you must carry a few small people in the air, is to hold them in your foreclaws. The theory is, that way you can carry them around and intimidate them at the same time. If they get annoying, you can start to close your paw on them, which will often scare them. If they get very annoying you can either crush them or drop them.

I’m not generally one to dispute the theory of honor and etiquette. This time, though, I really don’t understand. How often do you carry someone around who you’re willing to kill? Or someone who you need to intimidate?

I have only carried one small person in my paw flying, ever. (Verimet, which shouldn’t be surprising at all.) It was hideously inconvenient. I couldn’t tell if I was holding her nicely, or I had accidentally dropped her without realizing it, or I was crushing her. After a bit I stopped and made her tie herself to my fingers, so at least I couldn’t drop her so easily, and told her to scream if I started crushing her, which happened a couple of times. I had to heal her with the Great Titan Sanitarium, which didn’t work very well. We still got there in time, more or less. I got Rankotherium to teach me the Arcane Anodyne the next day. Anyways, I don’t like carrying people in my paws. Especially not for as long a flight as this was going to be.

Carrying someone on your back is considered to be (a) inconvenient and (b) a great honor for the someone. I will utterly vouch for (a) inconvenient! Especially when you have just accidentally rendered the someone’s right arm unusable, and you don’t have anyone to help you put her on.

(b) A great honor for the someone … I don’t think so, in this case. If anyone is wondering whether I am doing Tarcuna a great honor, well, I did a lot of work to heal her. Much more work than your average slave is worth. A public friend ought to be worth less than that even, by any reasonable measure: if someone’s just hired for a short-term job, you don’t have much of an investment in them.

So I think Tarcuna has some kind of hold on me. For one thing, it’s never a good idea to kill someone you’ve worked that hard to save. You look so foolish when you do that. So, if I were carrying her in my paw, I couldn’t drop her or squish her, not sensibly.

Under no circumstances is it the least bit acceptable to let the small person on your back rein you.

Anyhow, that’s why I decided to let her ride on my back.

Saved by Love (Day 63)

Background Research

Port-of-Zom is, indeed, a grotty port city in Vlechinse. It’s smaller than Dorday, and far uglier. The bay side of the town is a skeleton forest of iron scaffolds (used for getting cargo onto and off of ships, not hoven sacrifices), ugly brown brick buildings made from the river Zom’s ugly brown mud baked into ugly brown bricks, barren parking lots, snaking train tracks carrying battered old cars spattered with ugly brown mud, and other assorted practical things spattered with ugly brown mud. Beyond that is a slovenly slum, homes for dock workers and railroad workers and whatnots, hotels and bars and whorehouses for sailors from afar. And, of course, one singing spot of magic from Llredh’s protective spells and such.

We landed in an abandoned lot rather far in the outskirts of town, Arilash and Ythac and I, and Tarcuna in her harness on my back. The Zomites were nervous to see us fly in. I suppose some of our fiancés had been a bit violent here and there around Hove — actually, I had been, though entirely for good reasons. So we weren’t quite as welcome to just fly in somewhere for some nonviolent purpose and land as we might be. The Vlechinse army started to gather to defend the most vital bits of town from us — the port, the governor’s house. Misplaced! Nothing in Port-of-Zom was more valuable than our fiancé.

“Is he really wormridden?” asked Arilash.

“He sounds like it to me,” said Tarcuna as she struggled to get off my back one-handed. “I’ll go check if you like though.”

“How can you check?” asked Arilash.

“Go and ask him, what else? There are some code phrases, they’re obvious to the wormridden really, I’m sure he’ll have learned them.”

Ythac was in rather a state. He’d bite the tip of his tail, wince when he noticed what he was doing, and then heal it. A few seconds later his tailtip would be in his mouth again. “Once we know he is … What do we do? We can’t stun him out and and do surgery on him, the way you did to Tarcuna. He’s far too dangerous for that, even in hoven form,” Ythac fretted.

“No, we can’t.”

He thought a moment. “Jyothky, are you sure that cyoziworms can’t infest dragons in dragon shape?”

“I didn’t check it exactly. It can’t conquer a dragon in dragon shape, I know that much. It shouldn’t be able to control Llredh if he turns back. They control hovens with little barbed probes in the brain. Our brains are a different shape, probably the probes won’t work. A lot bigger, so the probes probably won’t reach very much. Healing is probably a good idea though. Tarcuna’s a bit broken, we don’t want Llredh broken too.”

He bit his tail, winced, healed. “Tarcuna. Do you think he’ll know that? Or that his worm will?”

Tarcuna thought a bit, looking up quite calmly at Ythac’s huge teal eyes. “I certainly didn’t know that. I didn’t know about the brain probes. Bopo didn’t seem to understand dragons very well. I was really afraid that Spotty would kill him for trying to colonize her — I couldn’t care about her killing me — but I couldn’t explain that to Bopo. He just wanted it, so I had to do it.”

“Good, then. How long before a cyoziworm can … colonize, you say? … colonize another hoven?”

“Two days. They could spread very fast, but they keep their numbers down mostly,” said Tarcuna.

“So I’ll try to tempt Llredh back to dragon shape, which should free him, and then we heal him a whole lot very fast, and … if that doesn’t work, I guess we’ll do something else,” said Ythac. “Jyothky, Tarcuna, you know as much about what’s going on as anyone, is that a good plan?”

I thought a bit. “Well, we’ll want to get the worm out as quick as we can. It shouldn’t poison a large dragon so fast as a little hoven, but it could make him sick.”

“Right. OK, get down off of Jyothky, and go and find out about him, Tarcuna.” He plucked her delicately off my back, and set her on the ground. “Oh, and we need to clean you. You stink of dragoness.” He blasted her with illusions and scent-destroyers, while Arilash tried to tease him about his choice of words. “Now you sing of recent magic, but Llredh probably won’t catch that. Ready?”

Tarcuna waved her good arm. “Sure!”

“If you take this opportunity to run away, I will find you in about three minutes and come and kill you,” said Ythac.

Tarcuna gave him an odd look, and shrugged. I glared at Ythac. “She’s my, um…”

“‘Whore’ will do for now,” said Tarcuna.

“OK, she’s my whore. And I worked pretty hard to save her life. No killing her without my permission,” I said.

“Well, Murghal’s the only hoven I’ve met, and he’s always wanting to run away, and I’m very upset and nervous about this, so please accept my apology even though it’s pretty feeble? Or bite me if you want more revenge,” said Ythac to me.

“I accept your apology, Ythac. Just stop scaring my, um, pet hoven,” I said.

“I’m not scared,” said Tarcuna. “I’m ready whenever you want me to go.”

So she hiked citywards, and we flew to the hills to wait. “Fearless little girl, that,” said Arilash.

“She is now. I think I broke her,” I said. So I had to explain how I did surgery on her, and how I wrapped her in my hukuchô to knock her out, and that probably burned out the part of her soul which was capable of knowing fear. Or maybe it was ripping holes in her brain that did it, if the fear center is next to the right-arm center. Then Arilash made Ythac teach me the Lure of Dreams, which is a grownup sort of spell that traps people in a dreamworld. It’s mostly a torture spell, if you make the dreamworld unpleasant, but you can use it as a sleep spell. Ythac was the worst spell-teacher in Hove that day, missing parts and being all bitey and impatient when I didn’t get a piece right the first time. But Arilash and I made him keep at it. It mostly served to distract him from the wait.

Two hours water, a bicycle rickshaw drove out to the edge of town, and Tarcuna got out in the abandoned lot and looked around. Ythac was off in a flash, flying towards her in a vast thunder of wings.

“Is he wormridden?” Ythac demanded. “Llredh, I mean.”

“Yes, he is,” said Tarcuna.

“How did you tell?” I asked, coming in rather more slowly than Ythac.

“Oh, walked up to him and asked if he knew about the little cup and the dripping — that’s one of our passwords. He said he did, complained a bit about how very little his little cup was. I asked where there was a place to rest from it. He’s guarding a wormhouse. He said he’d let me in. I told him I needed to do something first, but I’d be back afterwards. That means that Bopo is going to make me do something — he probably thought I needed to feed Bopo. He was polite to me. He looked kind of unhappy though.”

“I should think so, being all conquered like that!” shouted Ythac.

Tarcuna clapped her hands to her ears. “Ow, that hurt, so loud!”

Ythac turned to me. “Right. I’m going to go save him, if I can. If I don’t come back, do not come after us. Not you alone, and not you with everyone else. Oh, I should tell you where everyone else is,” and he told us who was hiding where. And then, “Jyothky, tell my father I died bravely and … make something up that’s totally not like what really happened.”

I sort of goggled at him. “Well, good luck…” We embraced in farewell.

Love

Ythac leapt into the air. He circled the lot a few times, shapeshifting a touch — putting on his prettiest barbels and spikes, his most gleaming scales. Then he flew for Port-of-Zom. Arilash and I took to the air, Tarcuna on my back, but to watch from quite a distance. The Vlechinse soldiers were getting a bit frisky with their artillery.

Ythac circled over the wormhouse where Llredh was trapped, calling out, “Llredh, Llredh.”

Llredh was sitting on the step, in hoven form. He cupped his floppy hoven hands in front of his floppy hoven mouth so he could shout back. “Hi, Ythac. The tempting-back you come here to make again, no? The denial you will have again! A more important thing to do is now the thing I have to do!”

“Llredh, Llredh. I know what has become of you. I know about the little cup and the dripping,” said Ythac.

“And you dare come back? The taunting you will make of me now? The teasing, the mocking? I care nothing! Nothing!” howled Llredh, full of despair and helpless anger.

Ythac stripped off his illusion spells, so that anydragon could see the truth of his words. “No, no, not that, never that. I love you. I’ve loved you from the time we met,” he said. Which is a rather disgusting thing for one drake to say to another, and even more to mean it. He sounded a lot more intense about it than when he had said he loved me, too.

“The sentimental romantic farewell you make on me?” said Llredh. “Fine, fine. My favorite drake, you were he, and my favorite dragoness, you were she, too, more often than not. Those were good fights and good fucks. Now, away with you. This place, I will never leave it, the worms here are more important than any fighting and any fucking.”

Ythac hovered as best he could, all his wings beating. “I don’t want to leave you. Not here, not like this… Come up and mate with me. I’ll be the dragoness for you. Come up. I’ll leave my scutes off. No heavy scales, no apotropaics. Just bare soft skin on my chest. I’ll join you, if that’s how it goes. We’ll protect the wormhouse forever, you and I. Just to be together with you, always.” Every word true. I was absolutely horrified.

“You cannot wish it,” said Llredh. “The worm, she is not so nice.”

“Better sharing the worm with you than leaving you,” said Ythac, truthfully.

Ythac turned female, and shifted away his … her … scales and stripped off her other spells, leaving herself unprotected. Llredh looked up at her, lust and horror and unwanted need burning in his eyes. Ythac called down to him, “Come up, come up here and take me, Llredh.”

“No, no, it is a horror you ask!” howled Llredh from his hoven mouth. But his worm no longer left him the freedom to protest (he told us later). It knew a superb host when it saw one, albeit distored through Llredh’s mind, and it wanted the best for its child. It splashed into Llredh’s psychic cup, as Ythac circled over him and spread her claspers, and in minutes forced him to try to colonize Ythac.

And so Llredh was compelled to put back on his orange and brown scales and take up his wings and claws. And as soon as he did, he howled in fury and pain. The worm’s control must have broken then, and torn Llredh inside then.

And Llredh was deep, deep in his fury. Nothing angers a dragon a twelfth as much as being dominated by a far lesser creature. He cast a simple scrying spell inside himself, to find out where the worm was. And then he went after it. He ripped open his own chest with his claws. He snapped three of his ribs. Ythac flew down and tried to put the Rose Rescaler on him, but he blocked the healing spell with his vô. “The time, the more time you must give me, this enemy I will destroy even if I die from it!” Ythac beat his wings, staying close to Llredh, and let Llredh alone to rip open his left lung and expose the tiny forked-tailed cyoziworm flopping around feebly in there.

And Llredh breathed flame into his own chest, his fiercest flame, so strong and deep that it must have strained his whefô. His flesh seared here and there; his fire was so hot that it overwhelmed his usual immunity to his own breath.

His cyoziworm had no such immunity. It fell away as ashes.

“Not enough revenge, not nearly enough is that. But what can one do to an animal that barely even thinks? Ythac, Ythac, now you may heal me,” said Llredh. And Ythac was more than happy to, with the Rose Rescaler and the Great Titan Sanitarium. And Llredh gave himself the Put-Together-Now, and that seemed to mostly take care of the wound.

“Come back, come back to the mating flight with me,” said Ythac, when Llredh was out of danger.

“The cheating-on-me, already you make her?” warbled Llredh. “You give me my saving, but with the false promise?” He air-danced around Ythac, laughing.

Ythac half-folded her wings in shame, nearly falling out of the sky into the vile streets of Port-of-Zom. “No, Llredh, everything was true … how am I cheating?”

“The fine fuck in the sky, you promise her to me! Now first the flying-away you want to make?” said Llredh, laughing.

“… Oh! …”

“One minute, I give her to you. One minute to put your spells back and your scales back, and all things back,” said Llredh.

Ythac sort of gaped at him. “What?”

“The fine brave boy, he risks his soul to rescue me, this is the boy I will twine in the sky and anyone can see it! This is the boy who offers his life for mine! This is the boy I will give my life to!” shouted Llredh, in Grand Draconic except for the vulgarity. The few trees of Port-of-Zom shook at his voice, and the soldiers got to work with their artillery.

“Oh!” said Ythac, and started putting spells on herself — then himself — in rather a daze. Llredh circled him while he worked, looking rather more excited and eager than any drake had looked for me.

And the two of them coupled in the sky over Port-of-Zom. I don’t know exactly what they did with each other; I couldn’t watch. Arilash was watching, and soon smelling of dragoness lust herself.

I couldn’t bear to see the nastiness that my best friend had chosen for himself. I snatched Tarcuna up and flew away, to fetch Osoth from the Prevalian Catacombs.

Meditation

Saved by the power of love. In the most horrible way possible.

Better than a cyoziworm for each of them? I don’t know.

En Route

“Why are we flying away?” asked Tarcuna calmly. “I only caught a word here and there.”

“And that word was probably vulgar,” I said, “That’s all that Llredh said in Hoven languages.”

“Your friend got freed, right? That’s why he ripped his chest up?”

“Llredh got freed. I don’t know that he’s my friend, or Ythac,” I said.

“He did the surgery on himself? That’s a bit tough.”

“Yes. I don’t think anything could have stood between Llredh and his revenge. Certainly not Llredh’s own scales and bones.”

“But he’s all right now?”

“Yes, I think so. Our healing spells work better on us than on you, and he wasn’t nearly as badly hurt as you were,” I answered. “I don’t know for sure. My horrible ex-fiancé and my rival are taking care of him. I can’t imagine that he could be in much trouble with that much help.”

“Ex-fiancé?”

“Ythac,” I said.

“Last I heard, he was your best friend and likely husband…?”

I turned my head back to glare at her briefly. It’s a good thing I broke her ability to experience fear. “He loves another male dragon. I can’t marry someone like that. I can’t imagine how to even tolerate someone like that.”

She shrugged. “You and my mother.”

“What?”

“I’ve mostly loved other girl hovens. Or doesn’t it count when non-dragons do that?” said Tarcuna. “It sure counted for my mother; she disinherited me. Better dump my perverted ass off your back right now.”

“I am not going to kill you, Tarcuna. It is such bad form to save someone’s life and have them help out and then to kill them,” I said.

“And it’s good form to abandon a friend on one of the most important days of his life?”

“I can’t think what might be good form under the circumstances,” I said.

“What are they doing back there?” said Tarcuna.

“I don’t want to think about that. They didn’t even have the clawtip of a decency for one of them to turn into a girl,” I snapped.

“I mean with the explosions… is that part of dragons making love?”

“Not generally,” I said, and looked back. Hovens were assaulting the other dragons from the ground with artillery and purple rays, and from the air from many planes. A moderate amount of Port-of-Zom was ablaze.

«Are you all right?» I wrote frantically to Ythac.

«We’re fine! We got interrupted by some soldiers though. Want to help us? I’d really appreciate some lightning now,» he answered.

«Yes. Don’t think you’re forgiven though,» I scribbled to him. “I’m going back to help. I’ll put you down, it’s safer.”

“Oh, don’t! I want to stay with you! This should be exciting to see from your back!” chirped Tarcuna.

“You are very mind-broken,” I said.

“So true! But I might as well enjoy it,” she said.

The Battle of Port-of-Zom

So I turned and flew back with my hoven on my back. The others were having trouble with the warplanes. Fire breath can go reasonably far, but it cannot go reasonably far very fast, and the planes were dodging around too much to be convenient targets for fire breath. They had some sort of technologically magical torpedoes, too, which curved and twisted in the air, and if they missed the first time, would try twice or thrice more. And of course my friends had to pay attention to any number of assaults from the ground too, artillery and twistor rays and such.

So I touched this plane and that with lightning. Sometimes they exploded. Sometimes they stopped dodging and zipping around, and their momentum carried them off away from the fight. Sometimes they simply sprouted big burny holes in the side, and fled under their own power. Lightning is happy to be both far and fast, though you can’t melt mountains with it when you’re upset.

The airplanes were mostly gone by the time I got back to Port-of-Zom. Llredh wriggled happily at me — I’ve never seen him so happy. “Thanks so much, Jyothky!” he cried out in Trestean.

“Well, sure… what are you doing?”

“The city of my humiliation, I am destroying her! The armies of defenders, my husband and my lovers are holding them back.”

“The whole city?” shouted Tarcuna. “They’d hate the wormridden as much as you do!”

“Come not between the dragon and his vengeance!” cried Llredh.

“I’m not, but if you get vengeance on the wrong thing, it’s pretty stupid vengeance!” shouted Tarcuna.

“The girl who rides you, she is very chatty!” remarked Llredh. “If she were off your back, I would slay her.” A heavy shell exploded under his belly, and he grunted and put the Rose Rescaler into himself.

“The girl who rides me, she saved you nearly as much as Ythac, and without half the reward.” (And without half the indecency, either, but I didn’t say that.) “And she knows more about hovens and cyoziworms than you do.”

Llredh flew down a bit, to where his breath was hot enough to melt the gun which had shot him. “My revenge, my vast and terrible revenge, what does your expert recommend I do for her?” he called up to us, as he dodged and blasted an assortment of other missiles.

“Let’s go somewhere quiet and discuss it. It looks to me like all of your actual enemies here are dead, and lots of the hovens who should be your allies against them too,” said Tarcuna. “And you’re killing your allies by the tens and hundreds.”

“Besides, we’ve got about five hemipenises more to go,” said Ythac. “I am not letting you get out of that!”

“This battle, it looks like we have won her?” We looked around. Fourteen of the twenty planes were destroyed, the rest were fled, and two dozen tanks and cannons. Which was a third or five-twelfths of the big weapons that had come against us. We hadn’t particularly been bothering with the less well-armed soldiers, who hadn’t done much more than scramble around and try to look fierce and/or effective. A half-mile square and more was ablaze, in a big wobbly circle around the former wormhouse. “My revenge, my fury, Port-of-Zom will not soon forget him!” cried Llredh.

The rest of us agreed that honor and violence were satisfied for the moment. Arilash darted around and touched put the Melismatic Tempest into us. We flew away tremendously fast, leaving trails of spiky music behind us. Within the hour, the Vlechinse army congratulated themselves on the radio on their victory over four dragons.

Me vs. Ythac

Arilash, Tarcuna, the perverts, and I flew for a third of an hour, and the Melismatic Tempest made it as if we flew for a third of a day. Not that there was much of a reason to go so far. None of us were all that fond of Port-of-Zom, even at its best, and it certainly wasn’t at its best anymore, though.

We passed over water, we passed over jungle, we passed over water, and we came to a shining white cone of an island in a shallow silvery sea. I called up to Tarcuna on my back, “What is this place? Are we out of Vlechinse?”

“Long gone from Vlechinse. This is Esbaril. It’s a wonderful vacation spot for people who can afford it. My parents had their honeymoon here. Um, please don’t destroy it, if it’s all the same to you?” she shouted back.

So we landed on the top of Esbaril. The hovens have built a small pavilion up there, and a wide playground and picnic area around it. There are telescopes mounted on the rim of the mountain, and for a small coin a hoven can peer around at the rich jungle of Esbaril, or tilt the telescope up and perhaps catch a glimpse of home in distant Trest or Vlechinse or wherever. Or spy on far-off Nrararn as he disported himself in the clouds when he thought nobody was watching. Each morning in Esbaril very early, dozens of poor Esbarites load their backs with big packs of nut cookies and pre-made sandwiches, bottles of foaming cider and small beer, spare shoes and straw hats, and whatever else they think that tourists might want, and hike to the top to scrabble for their day’s living. Every morning in Esbaril not so early, hundreds of families of tourists hike up the wide well-paved mountain trails, and mostly have a wonderful time. And if they break a shoe or didn’t bring enough lunch, the poor Esbarites are delighted to help out for a quite fair fee.

Unfortunately, the poor Esbarites didn’t have a very good day today. Neither did the tourists.

The four of us with wings landed at one end of the paved area. Arilash helped Tarcuna off my back. Llredh and Ythac smiled at the tourists and the vendors. “Hi! We’re going to borrow a corner of your mountain for a chat!” said Ythac in Trestean. “We’re completely harmless unless pestered, taunted, or assaulted with high-caliber weapons!”

The tourists and vendors didn’t seem to entirely believe him. Many of them ran for the paths down, and made their escape good and their holiday not so good. A few dozen stayed. Perhaps some had the tactical sense that climbing (slowly) down a mountain to escape from speedy fire-breathing flying monsters wasn’t likely to work very well. Perhaps they were poor and determined to extract whatever money they could from the day. Certainly some of them didn’t look as if they could get down the mountain very fast.

“Tarcuna, please go buy all the vendor’s food. Have some for yourself, if you’re still hungry,” I commanded.

“Sure, no problem,” she said. It was a problem though. She couldn’t carry much, being exhausted and having a paralyzed arm. Even the bravest vendors wouldn’t come close to us.

Arilash listened to Tarcuna bicker with them for a few minutes, and then hopped to the other side of the mountaintop and grinned down at them with a mouth full of very large and very gleamy fangs. “O respected hovens! If we wished to kill you, you would even now be dead. If we wished to melt your mountain, it would even now be a river of stone flowing down to the cities on the coast. We wish neither one. Alarmingly, we wish to buy snacks from you. I will even buy a straw hat! But you must be polite.”

“Arilash, it’s my thurneys you’re spending! My whore’s thurnies, anyways, but it amounts to the same thing,” I squawked as the vendors, their escape routes cut off, brought us their wares. Arilash speared a straw hat jauntily on one of her headspikes. Her rather suspicious headspikes — drakes should have spikes, dragonesses shouldn’t. Arilash has always been rather flashy and masculine in her choices of form. That seemed a lot more suspicious to me today.

Llredh blinked at me. “Jyothky! Of dragons you are the virginest, of dragons you are the properest! The female hoven whore, why do you have her?”

I chilled his flank with winter breath. “You are the grand pervert! You tempt Ythac away from decency! You are not one to talk!”

Arilash adjusted her Small Wall. “I’m a fairly grand pervert too, though I can’t say I’ve managed to tempt Ythac very well, and I was wondering the same thing.” She put on her most conciliatory voice. “Is it that you don’t lust for dragons much, but you lust for hovens?”

“Nothing like that. I’d no more copulate with her than I would with you, Arilash,” I said.

She looked a bit dismayed. “Really? I was hoping for a turn with you now and then. I like dragonesses, as a break from all the drakes.”

“… really? …” I mumbled. That wasn’t something I much wanted to hear.

“Yes. I planned to ask after you’d gotten through all the drakes at least once. That’s polite,” she said.

Well, that was a despair and a half. “I am surrounded by perverts,” I said.

“True, true, you’re from the ‘cripples’ side of the mating flight, and the rest of us here are from the ‘perverts’ side,” said Ythac.

“The grand denial I must make here!” rumbled Llredh. “Neither one side nor the other am I on, but both at once!”

“It’s not like that! What about Csirnis? What about Osoth and Nrararn, for that matter?” I shouted.

“Nrararn has no aeroception and is small and unimpressive, Osoth is exceedingly clumsy, neither of them is very strong in battle, and Csirnis wasn’t part of the flight ’til the last minute,” said Arilash. “But Nrararn and Osoth could go in a ‘weaklings’ side, if you’d like.”

“You make us sound like the dregs of Mhel’s dragons,” I whined.

“Oh, we are, absolutely. There were, what? four mating flights sent off at about the same time, in the same duodecade, except ours got delayed. We mostly got the dragons that the others didn’t want: perverts, cripples, weaklings. Roroku thought it better to make a grand of enemies for her parents and flee to Chiriact than to come with us,” said Arilash.

I thought about that a bit. I’ve thought about it more since then. I wish I could think of any flaws with it.

“Which doesn’t change the fact that Ythac and Llredh are being completely horrible and wicked and disgusting,” I noted. They were, too. They’d twined their tailtips together. Drakes should not do that. Especially drakes on a mating flight.

Ythac glared at me. “Easy for you to say. You’ve never wanted drake or dragoness a moment in your life. You’ve never had your fiercely powerful and powerfully fierce father chew up your wing to try to pain the perversion out of you! You’ve never had to make up excuse after excuse to get the touch that you actually do need. You’ve never listened to everyone you ever respected the least little bit mock you for what you needed so much. You’ve never tried and tried to lust after the right sort of dragon and it never, ever works.”

“… except the last one,” I muttered.

“Well. Right. You’ve never lost your oldest friend because of it,” he said softly.

“Not ’til today,” I snapped.

Llredh reared his head and puffed sparks. “My …” He tried to think of a good word. “My true love, if you make him your enemy, I too will be your enemy.” Most of the remaining vendors and tourists ran away.

Ythac put a forewing in front of Llredh’s face. “Llredh, Llredh, this is between us. Jyothky, I have wronged you. I will give you as vast an apology as I am capable of.”

“How’d you wrong her?” hissed Arilash. “You owe her nothing.”

“I wouldn’t call giving me the keys to Llredh’s soul nothing, Arilash,” said Ythac. “And I told her I loved her and promised to marry her with a particularly favorable arrangement.”

“Y’what?” roared Arilash. “I should have gotten first choice, not Jyothky!”

“She didn’t accept either one,” said Ythac, his hindwings flat on the ground.

Mine were flat too. “I should have done. Then you wouldn’t be a pervert.”

“No, Jyothky. I was expecting to have some drake friends on the side. Llredh, for one. That I’d go hunting with, or … other things away from home for a while or two. I didn’t think you’d care very much even if you found out. I didn’t think you’d mind much … well, much compared to most other dragonesses.”

“You are the most vile dragon on Hove,” I said.

“Well. Yes,” said Ythac.

“Worse than Tultamaan?” asked Arilash.

“Tultamaan is honest at least,” I said. “Ythac’s been lying to me for duodecades.”

“The loyal friend and ally, he also has been for duodecades! Deny him that if you can, finicky dragoness!” thundered Llredh. “You knew nothing of his true soul, but it was no mystery to him when he attended stupid birthday parties and cared for your safety from artillery!”

I thought about that a while. “Right. Ythac, I will accept your apology sometime. But you’re a disgusting pervert. Your tastes are as nasty as anything that ever came out of your cloaca, and your lust for Llredh is a disgrace to our entire species.”

Ythac dipped his head. “Thank you. I agree with you on all of that.”

Arilash and Llredh hissed angrily, and tried to argue, both at once. Ythac flapped his forewings at them. “You’re perverts too. You can’t think like a pure one anymore. Jyothky can’t think like anything else. She’s right.”

Arilash snarled at me. “If you aren’t at least pleasant to Ythac from now on, I am going to chew your left wing off in your sleep and you won’t notice and you’ll be grounded for a year ’til you can grow it back.”

I snarled back at her. “If you try, I am going to quite handily deprive you of your top choice of husband. If Ythac doesn’t do it instead.”

So at least basic civility was restored to the mating flight.

Llredh vs. Tarcuna

“Now that that’s settled,” said Arilash, “Perhaps we should discuss what we’re doing next.”

I had the answer. “Back to the Khamrou Voresc, of course. Back to the mating flight.” I grinned a thin grim grin. “Only, now we’re back to three girls like we should be. I don’t think Ythac is going to come in first or second though.”

Ythac and Llredh looked at each other. “Not for Ythac will I speak — not yet! — but I say this. The full withdrawing from the mating flight I shall make, if Ythac will have me. No more shall I compete,” said Llredh.

Ythac looked supremely happy, but said nothing.

Arilash grinned at Llredh. “I’ll miss you — you’re one of the best lovers in the flight!”

“Hah! The best!”

“In enthusiasm, yes. In energy and force, yes. In technique, Csirnis. In pleasure, Csirnis. Mating with you is like a big meal of raw meat. Mating with him, like meat simmered in butter ’til it melts,” said Arilash.

“If any shame is on you, Ythac, it must be the shame of depriving Arilash from a lover like me! She will grow fat and torpid on a diet of buttered meat!” said Llredh with a laugh.

“We need to talk, privately,” said Ythac. “There’s a lot for us to decide.”

“We need to fuck, publicly!” said Llredh. “There’s a lot for us to display!”

“That too,” said Ythac.

“That’s for you two. But what all of us need to talk about is, what are we doing about the fact that we’ve rather stirred their armies against us?” said Arilash.

“Bah, we destroy bits of one city, or two, a few planes and tanks,” said Llredh. “Plenty upon plenty have they!”

“Plenty upon plenty is the issue, yes,” said Arilash. “I imagine we could spend the whole mating flight doing nothing but battling hoven armies. And hopefully not get any injury we can’t heal ourselves. Their weapons are not very good, but they are good enough to hurt.”

“I’d rather just fight you,” I said to Arilash.

“Then you shouldn’t have destroyed all those warplanes and burned up half of Port-of-Zom. You’ll probably have more battles coming. Soldiers don’t give up so easily.” said Tarcuna. She was sitting crosslegged, her back against my foreclaws, polishing her hooves, and mostly being ignored. I realized then that she was eating a sandwich from the pile we had bought, a pile of food which I was ignoring too. I was obviously very upset if I wasn’t eating.

The other dragons had forgotten about her too. “Which brings us back to the minor question of just what pure, virginal Jyothky is doing with a female hoven whore whom she lets ride on her back?” asked Arilash. “Especially given her opinion about same-sex coupling, and, I should think, inter-species as well.”

I stripped off my deceit spells. “I never coupled with her, I never had the least bit of lust for her, I didn’t know she was a whore when I hired her. I thought she was a … professional friend. Like a tour host.”

“The very naïve girl, Jyothky is she!” crowed Llredh. “Fortunate and happy am I that my mate is bright with clues and sense!” Ythac beamed, and squirmed over so that his flank rested against Llredh’s. Disgusting.

Tarcuna glared at Llredh. “And don’t you go teasing Jyothky! She’s clever and powerful and kind and brave!” Well, I guess I had one ally there, even if she was a hoven.

“And rich, she is also!” crowed Llredh. “Your loyalty she buys by the hour!”

“Rich enough to let me die and hire another public friend! Or even chor-chor, a real tour host!” shouted Tarcuna. “Instead she worked all night to save me. And if she had not done, guess what? You’d still have a little cup in your mind, and a worm dripping his will into it.”

Llredh was taken aback. I don’t think small people shout arguments at him very much. “This is what happened?” he asked Ythac, rather uncertainly.

“Yes, that’s all true,” said Ythac. The next sixth of an hour was all full of my adventures in Dorday.

“Brave, I don’t know about,” said Arilash. “Powerful, well, she could do better on that too. Clever, maybe adequate. But Jyothky certainly does her Uplifting rather thoroughly.”

“Except when she’s blasting warplanes out of the sky,” said Ythac. “Jyothky, have you picked Uplifter or Downcrusher yet?”

“Not really,” I said.

“No Uplifter, no Downcrusher, is what we talk about now! The worms, the worms, the hateful worms!” roared Llredh. “Upon the cyoziworms I will have my revenge, a greater revenge than just the little one of the day in Port-of-Zom!”

“And how are you going to manage that, Llredh?” asked Tarcuna.

Llredh answered her with fire. He breathed a great column of flame into the sky, so bright that Virtuet seemed dim beside it. It rose and rose, and hung in the sky for a full minute.

Tarcuna yawned. “Right. You can kill one of us — a wormridden I mean, I need to remember I’m not wormridden anymore. No problem, you can kill any hoven, or any thousand hovens, without half trying. What are you going to do? Go visit some poor hoven city … how are you even going to find the wormridden? They look just like normal hovens. You need an intrascope to tell, I suppose. You’ll what? Parade the whole city in front of an intrascope to pick out ten or twenty wormridden?”

Ythac said, “No need, not while I am his …” He fussed for words a moment. “His ally.” He lashed his tail. “His true love! I’m going to live it, I want to say it! Anyways, one wormridden person in Dorday lives at at 18 St. Spello Street, apartment 37.”

Tarcuna stared. “How do you know?”

I told her, “He’s good at finding things. Remember how I was complaining that he knew my hotel room in Dorday?”

“Oh. So … do you want revenge on the worms?”

“Yes, the worms, I hate the worms more than you can possibly imagine!” said Llredh.

“Not more than I can imagine. I was wormridden for much longer than you were, fruity little lizard,” said Tarcuna.

Llredh stared at her hard. “Small people rarely insult me and live,” he said.

Tarcuna yawned again. “Whatever.”

I stretched a forewing between them. “Tarcuna, please be polite to Llredh. Llredh, don’t you dare kill my rental friend.”

Tarcuna shrugged, and said, “Sure thing, Spotty.”

Llredh said, “Your whore, she is practicing to be a great hoven hero who challenges dragons?”

“Just foolhardy. There’s a crack in my mind, right where any sort of fear should go,” added Tarcuna.

“Which is to say, she’s braver than you are,” I added.

“Yeah, well, maybe I’ll get better someday,” said Tarcuna. “If Llredh doesn’t kill me first. Anyways, we’re talking cyoziworms. You hate them almost as much as I do, right?”

“… right …” Llredh was a bit intimated.

“But not the wormridden. You were one for a bit. Killing wormridden wouldn’t be a very good revenge on the worms, now, would it?”

“Not so bad,” he said.

“Killing people like you were, like I was?”

Llredh allowed as how that might be a bit less than perfect.

“Let’s torture the worms,” said Tarcuna. “They’re not very smart, but they know fear and they understand a little of what the wormridden do. Let’s go and find them, starve them maybe, take them out of their hosts, and kill them. And keep the hosts alive. They’d hate that more than anything. You killed yours fast, but Spotty killed mine more slowly. The last thing it dripped in me was how glad I was going to die with it.”

“Please don’t try to lie to a dragon, Tarcuna,” I said. “We can tell when you are.”

“That was a lie?”

“That bit about how glad it was that you would die … not a lie, quite, but shading the truth a lot.”

“OK. Here’s the exact truth. Bopo sort of clutched at me and tried to take me with it in death. Definitely it was bodily, when it poured out its poison. Maybe it was spiritually too, I don’t really know exactly. I’m sure it wanted me dead though. I’m sure it would hate more than anything if it knew I would live.”

“There’s a truth, fine. I like that revenge,” said Llredh.

“I don’t. It’s a huge amount of work, if we’re going to be rescuing hoven after hoven,” said Arilash. “We’re not here to conquer Hove. We’re sure not here to save it.”

The Escape

Llredh and Ythac started climbing on each other and otherwise acting like drakes shouldn’t. Arilash watched with considerable interest.

Tarcuna seemed rather interested too. She’s a professional after all, or a soon-to-be-ex professional. “Your men have three?”

“Yes,” I rather hissed at her. “I told you all that before.”

“So big.”

“Not compared to the whole drake,” I said.

“That’s the small one. The medium and large are even more delightful,” said Arilash.

“My hemipenises, they are for Ythac! The watching, the self-pleasure, these things you may do. The touching of me, she is for one drake alone!” hooted Llredh.

“I’m leaving,” I snapped. “I’ll tell the other drakes, and make sure they don’t get caught by cyoziworms or something. Tarcuna, are you staying or coming with me?”

“I guess I’d better come with you,” she said. “You’ll take me back to Dorday sometime?”

“By the end of our contract, unless we extend it or something,” I said. “Arilash, could you put her on my back?” Arilash did so, not taking her eyes off the drakes.

“You’re awfully serious about the contract,” she said when we were over the Sea of Diamonds.

“We keep our agreements,” I said. “And promises and wagers and such. We don’t make either one very often, not if we’re sensible, but only the vilest dragon would break either one. … Of course, half the dragons you’ve met have been pretty vile, and Arilash isn’t much better, but they’re not wicked that way. I don’t think.”

“I’m pretty vile myself. I loved the wrong way a lot, then got a cyoziworm and pretty much lived in a whorehouse and did … everything. Everything that didn’t endanger me or Bopo. I didn’t care much.”

“You had an excuse. Llredh has a hint of an excuse … he can certainly honor the drake who saved him, but romance is disgusting and I’m pretty sure it was going on before this. Ythac has no excuse at all.” I said.

“I don’t think you quite understand about how we feel when someone frees us from the worm, Spotty. But even before that, I had plenty of choice about Kangbok,” said Tarcuna. “She’s not just a girl, she’s a tappu.”

I poked at ‘tappu’ with the Word-Fox, which gave me several definitions. “What’s a tappu? Religion? Fur pattern? Ethnic group?”

“All of those. They’ve got brown spots usually, Kangbok sure did. They worship Drukah, but they consider Bmern to be the Evil Angel, and regularly try exorcisms against him — can you imagine?”

“I can’t imagine, I can’t understand, and I can’t theocept.”

“It probably doesn’t matter to you anyways. What’s theocept?”

“A pretty-useless little sense for noticing gods in the area. There aren’t any except a dead one Osoth brought with him,” I said.

“Anyways, some hovens are vile, by your standards. Some dragons too. We’re not doing it to you, just maybe near you,” said Tarcuna.

“Well, Osoth had better not be having a secret love with Nrararn, or I’ll bite all his wings off,” I said.

“What’s all this about biting wings?” she asked.

I was as glad to change the subject as she was. “Oh, nothing very much. They’re easy to heal though. And everybody else says that they hurt a lot when you crunch their bones.”

“Oh … how angry do you have to be to bite another dragon?”

“It’s a polite way to say ‘I’m somewhat annoyed with you’ to a peer. I wouldn’t bite a much bigger dragon — like Ythac’s father Rankotherium — not without a really good reason.”

“Polite, in a practical sort of way. How about biting a hoven?”

“I wouldn’t do that unless I wanted to kill one.”

“As long as you remember the difference between people and dragons, I guess we’ll be fine,” she said.

Telling Osoth

Osoth was sitting on a big pile of rubble, in the midst of a big jungle of overgrown ruined stone buildings. All around him were hovens working in the hot sunlight, some armed with dainty shovels, and some with tiny brooms and dustpans, and some with even less impressive implements of cleaning, or cryptic technological equipment, or even notepads. He knew I was coming from quite some distance of course.

“Osoth? Is this your territory?” I yelled to him from a polite distance.

“Hm? No, no. This is the Prevalian Catacombs. Fascinating place! Come see!”

I circled around. Hovens looked up at me without much fear — I guess they had been working for Osoth for a few days and he hadn’t been too dangerous. I started to land on a ruined cathedral sort of place. Osoth and some of the hovens jumped up and shouted, “No, no, not on the Tholos of the Abnegation!”

I glared at them, and after a bit got permission to land in the street. Several hoven workers helped exhausted Tarcuna off my back, and took her to a tent down the road. I hope they fed her and let her sleep like I told them to, rather than hiring her and making her work anymore.

“So, O my glorious and dark-scaled fiancée, what brings you to this dismal domain of ancient death, wherein lie buried tyrants and theopomps of bygone ages, and where I consult with the Prevalian Archaeological Society to recover them?” Osoth seemed quite proud of his archeological and necromantic powers, and any other time I would have let him trumpet about them for hours.

“Horrible news,” I said, in Grand Draconic.

“I await it with dread and trepidation!” said Osoth.

So I told him everything. He giggled considerably at all the wrong places.

“So, briefly, Llredh got himself taken over by a mind-worm, Ythac freed him, and now they’re a couple?” said Osoth.

“Exactly.”

“I continue to await the horrible news with dread and trepidation,” said Osoth.

“What could be more horrible?” I asked.

That is a very unwise question to ask a necromancer. “Well. He could continue to be trapped by the worm for one thing. Or dead. Or dead and his spirit entrapped in an ivory column in crenzi tasvri. Or he could be alive and infested with a magic-resistant strain of flesh-eating insects. Or, say, it could be one of our scant supply of dragonesses suffering one of those fates. For a few examples.”

“No. None of those.”

“Instead, Llredh and Ythac seem to have found happiness together. I can but wish them the greatest joy and success in this most unorthodox yet sublime of projects!”

I tried to bite his wing, but he dodged. “You’re being awfully nice to your rivals. You don’t have an alliance with them too, do you?”

“Ah! But from this news, they are rivals no longer!”

I should have understood that before. Of course the drakes won’t mind losing a rival. Especially not two higher-ranked rivals.

“You’re disgusting too! Wouldn’t you rather win with dignity than have your chances improved like this?”

“Win with dignity? I should be delighted, but I cannot expect such a thing. Any sort of victory that is not out-and-out dishonorable on my part would please me … not that I think you would accept me if I were the least bit dishonorable in person! Yet I do not constrain my failing rivals to behave so well.” said Osoth.

“I understand. But that didn’t win any fiancé points,” I told him.

“Nrararn will do better when you tell him, I should think.” said Osoth.

I had a horrible thought. “You and Nrararn aren’t lovers like that… are you?”

“No, no, not we!” He displayed for me the truth of his words. “Allies, yes. Friends, more or less, yes. Lovers, intimates? We have never been.”

“You sound evasive, necromancer,” I thundered, because he did. “Do you have any indecent plans?”

He breathed a puff of graveyard dust into my face. I choked on it, and had to use the Rose Rescaler. While I did, he answered, “We have options, not plans as such, which you might not regard as wholly decent. If one of us marries and the other does not, the married one will carefully overlook any adultery of his wife and the other, should such a thing arise.”

“I would not do a thing like that!” I roared.

“Arilash might, if it came to that,” said Osoth softly. “She might prefer it. And Nrararn and I cannot refuse the slightest advantage in our suit for her, no more than for you.”

Which was unendurable. “I’m going to go tell Csirnis. You can tell your proto-cuckold yourself.”

Telling Csirnis

According to Ythac, Csirnis had found a home in the island kingdom of Ze Cheya. I didn’t expect his home to actually be a home, just a hotel or something like mine.

I didn’t even notice that at first. I was just flying around over the capitol city, looking down at an odd mix of pointy temples with intricate and probably sacred gargoyles and very bland rectangular buildings where hovens actually seemed to live and work. The Zeanese looked up at me of course — I really ought to remember the Esrret-Sky-Painted — but they didn’t seem terribly worried.

After a few minutes, Csirnis boiled out of the base of one of the largest of the pointy temples, a beautiful gilded tower in the middle of a grand park pink with flowers. “Hallo, my sweet fiancée!” he called out in Grand Draconic. “Be welcome here in my temporary home!” So there was no worry about territory, either.

We circled each other twice, and embraced in the air. That’s always worth doing with Csirnis, even if you can’t feel it. The lluyew of his scales is delightful. In the streets of the city, dozens of photographers recorded the moment of our meeting.

“You seem to be doing well, my beautiful prince! And these hovens seem rather more glad of you than the hovens of the cities the rest of us have visited. Have you conquered them?” I asked.

He grinned at me, his teeth gleaming in the pink light of Virtuet-inside-Floret. “Well, not exactly. If I wanted to rule, I would never have left home! I flew here, and made my home in the Golden Pagoda of the Invisible Cloud, down there, in the middle of the night. Then I offered to heal anyone who came there in the first hour after dawn, of anything I can heal. The first day was a bit light, the second not so light, and by the third there were more hovens than I could manage in one hour. I’m up to two hours; I think that’s enough. Oh, and the occasional quick trip to someone who’s too sick to travel.”

“That’s very uplifty of you!” I said. “The rest of us aren’t being so nice.”

“I saw a bit of a pitched battle over Port-of-Zom earlier today. It was on all the news stations. Oh, I should add, I’m not looting the city, but the people I heal often bring me gifts. I’ve got a statue of a dog made of gold with bright ruby eyes that dates back two thousand years. I’ve got the best television set that Arucu Corporation made last year. And I’ve got a piece of slightly used butcher paper with a crayon drawing of something that might be me or might be a spider, I’m not sure which, with the words “THAK YOU DRRON GRAGON” written on it. And various other treasures.”

“Oh, you’ve got the start of a hoard now! That’s wonderful!”

“The start of one! I don’t know that the drawing will charm anyone but me. In any case — tell me what happened in Port-of-Zom!”

So I did. He listened with intent politeness.

“Well, I shan’t fault Ythac or Llredh for determination,” he said. “I am glad that, in the end, nobody was injured or conquered in any lasting way.”

“I am too, now that you mention it. I’m not quite sure about the last bit though. It seems to me that Ythac and Llredh were both injured and conquered in a very lasting way. Injured in social status, and conquered by love.” I said, rather pleased with myself. It is rare to score points chatting with Csirnis.

“Well, I was thinking of bodily injury and conquest by invader worms. But you are right as well! It will be a challenge for either of them to live down when they wish to put this incident behind them. We must be careful not to mention it after the mating flight. They may well end up married, but if not, it would hurt their chances later on.”

“Oh! They were sounding like they meant to marry each other.”

Csirnis laughed. “Now that would be rather a challenge. One might imagine them as a pair of old bachelor dragons living not so far from each other and often found in each others’ company, about whom might speculate if one were so inclined but, in all politeness, one should not be so inclined. Though Llredh in particular is quite a potent dragon: a better fighter than I am in many ways. He should not abandon his chances at marriage quite so early in the mating flight! Now, are you hungry?”

“Yes, I am quite hungry. I’ve flown quite a ways today, and didn’t even get any hoven-sized sandwiches in Esbaril.”

“I have no servants or funds per se, but the King of Ze Cheya has proclaimed me an honored guest of the kingdom. A privelege which includes a roaster of oxen! Shall we see how the day’s barbeque is doing? … Oh, and I must warn you. Now and then a hoven will come to the barbeque site wishing for healing. There is no obligation to help — it’s after my promissed hours — but now and then I have been healing them as I ate. It is my appreciation of their Way of Gentleness.”

“I’ve healed hovens a bit too. Mostly with the Arcane Anodyne,” I said.

“Ah, the Arcane Anodyne! It is hideous form for a drake to ask presents of his dragoness —” (And I was so purring to be called his dragoness!) “— but I have been using the Great Titan Sanitarium, and the results have not been all that one might hope for,” he said. “If you have an hour to spare this afternoon, could you teach me the Arcane Anodyne?”

“Oh, yes!”

So we flew to the Royal Racecourse, where three oxen were turning on self-turning spits (hovens have machines for everything) and six hovens tended them with sauces and spices. “Zakuna — the king — didn’t have a feasting-yard for dragons already prepared,” said Csirnis. “But twice a year he holds public races and feasts, and the kitchens here are large.”

“Larger than my appetite? Let’s find out!” I said.

One of the oxen was being roasted with salt and garlic and persimmon wine; the second with pungent dried scallops and fermented bean paste; the third with lemons and onions and basil. All three were delicious. The cooks carved small slices for the hoven visitors (of which there were two dozen or so — I don’t know what they were doing), and split the rest between Csirnis and me, and quickly got another three oxen started.

“You get the best servants, Csirnis. Especially since they’re not even yours.” I told him. He and I were sprawled on the racetrack itself, facing each other. The cooks had given each of us a big square of oiled cloth in lieu of a table, and a fresh white tablecloth on top of it for each new course in lieu of a platter.

“May I boast a bit?” asked Csirnis.

“Please do!” I took the left foreleg of the scallop-and-bean-paste ox to gnaw on while he talked. One of the cooks trotted under my chin, hooves a-clop on the paved track, and poured a big ladleful of sauce on the bone. All the other cooks applauded their colleague’s bravery and punctilio. “You do have them well-trained.”

“Well, Zakuna is rather pleased that I came to visit,” said Csirnis. “His grandson and fourth-in-line for the throne was dying of cancer of the heart. The death-watch hadn’t quite started, but any week now. All the local papers were full of preemptive mourning. So I flew in, sat in front of the Golden Pagoda, and offered to heal anyone who came in the next hour. A few burns and cuts, and the stinkiest upset stomach you could ever imagine on a hoven, and they believed me. So Prince Ayave got driven up in the royal ambulance, and walked up to me — right between my forelegs — and politely welcomed me to his grandfather’s country. So I healed him too — three casts of the Great Titan Sanitarium. That made a bit of an impression on Zakuna. On the whole country, really.”

“Very convenient,” I said, crunching my delicious saucy bone.

“I asked Ythac to find me a place with a sick ruler. That was a quarter of the way across the world, so I asked for a sick member of the family. This sounded like a good choice.”

“You asked Ythac? The one who was going to Seek?” I asked.

“Not a strategically superb move, truly! I did not expect to be hidden for very long, but Ythac was in no hurry. Or, I suppose, he was distracted by the troubles of Llredh.”

A pair of hovens wheeled a child wrapped in blankets across the field. “O gentle dragon Cisirinis, O gentle dragon Cisirinis, please be so generous as to heal my daughter! She is dying from the same cancer that Prince Ayave was dying of!”

Csirnis hesitated a second. I raised my head. “May I do it, Csirnis? I’ve not taught you the Arcane Anodyne yet.” He spread his wings a bit and beamed at me. Which was more delicious than any of the oxen, really.

The child struggled in her wheelchair, trying to run away. She was only a few years old, and not so brave as her prince. I touched her with my tongue, and cast. The Arcane Anodyne filled her up and flooded out. Her fur brightened a bit, and she instantly felt well enough to tumble out of the chair and dash across the racetrack crying and screaming from fear. Her mother (one presumes) ran after her, calling for her to stop, and shouting that I would not eat her.

Her father (one presumes) threw himself on the racetrack in front of me, babbling incoherent thanks. I patted him with a forepaw, spattering him with delicious sauce.

“Are you going to eat him now?” asked Csirnis in Grand Draconic. “Or just marinating him for later?”

So I belched a tiny scallop-and-bean-paste flavored lightning bolt at Csirnis. The lightning didn’t much reach him, but the belch certainly did. He squeaked nicely, “Hey! I only marginally deserved that!” The hoven ran off, wailing.

Csirnis and I swatted at each other a bit. He laughs like golden temple bells ringing, when he relaxes enough to laugh.

Then Prince Ayave came trotting up, all worried and fretful. Csirnis introduced me as his fiancée, and explained that we were just playing. Ayave solemnly welcomed me to Ze Cheya, and offered me the Pagoda of Elephants to stay in.

“It’s not decent for the Zeanese to couple before marriage,” said Csirnis in Grand Draconic. “The Way of Gentleness doesn’t include that kind of gentleness. Or maybe they’re rough when they couple, I haven’t asked. So, separate pagodas for us.”

“What an odd custom. How do you know you’ll like your spouse, if you haven’t mated beforehand? What if he turns out to be, well, like Ythac?”

“I don’t fully understand hovens myself! Their ways are strange and exotic. And the Zeanese Way of Gentleness is one of the stranger religions, lacking real gods and all.” said Csirnis. “Fortunately I don’t need to understand very much.”

“May I stay with you for a day or two? This seems like a very nice place, and I’ve done enough rampaging to last me for at least, oh, through tomorrow lunchtime.”

He laughed. “Of course you may — did not the prince give you a pagoda? This is his territory, not mine. But in case that was no joke, please try not to destroy much here. It is a very pleasant place.”

“I’ll be good! And, if you don’t mind, I’ll obey the local customs about mating,” I said.

“That will make it easier not to destroy the place, certainly!” Which was only a little bit of a tease, the way he said it.

Coda: Ze Cheya

Ze Cheya is a smallish and mostly irrelevant country. It’s an archipelago, naturally fortified by rings of ancient coral reefs. They don’t keep it safe anymore, not from zeppelins and jet planes, much less dragons. But they used to. Its big neighbor Damma couldn’t send a huge overwhelming armada to conquer it, they way that Damma did to three dozen other little countries. So the three dozen other little countries are now happy (or maybe unhappy) little states in one of Hove’s great regional powers. Ze Cheya is a quiet, poor, unimportant, and generally backwards country. Or mostly poor. Now that it’s actually reasonably easy to get to, lots of tourists from Damma and Trest and other rich places come there to enjoy the quaint exotic beauty of Ze Cheya.

Then they’re disappointed, because the capital (also called Ze Cheya) isn’t all that quaint or exotic or beautiful. Not everywhere, at least — the temples and palaces are wonderful. But the city itself is very urban, full of tall boring rectangular apartment buildings and tall boring rectangular office buildings. Like Port-of-Zom or Tublier, or the outskirts of Dorday where the tourists don’t go because it’s too boring. Except Ze Cheya (the city) has to fit on a small island, so they built taller and even more boring buildings.

The rest of Ze Cheya (the archipelago) is pretty nice. Csirnis and I flew over to, um, I don’t want to wake Csirnis up to ask him what that island was called. Which is a nice place to the old castles of the bandit princes (Ze Cheya used to be a pretty rough place), and the not-so-old pagodas of the Way of Gentleness monks (Ze Cheya has an indigenous pacifistic religion). And lots of terraced hill farms that look the way they did two gross years ago. Superficially! They’ve mostly got radios or televisions hidden inside of big stocky black wood armoires. So they mostly know that the four-winged beautiful prince flying overhead is friendly, and easy to distract with “Please heal my baby! Please heal my arthritis! Please heal my baby’s arthritis!”

So a dozen times I told the story about healing Churdle and getting genuine Churry City Chili and troublecakes. Which is a fun way to ask for tastes of the local cuisine! The farm’s cook would usually bristle herself up and say, “Well! Churry City Chili is all very well, but have you tasted lampkyos with egg sambar?” Or whatever their speciality is.

Lampkyos are small squids stuffed with spiced grain, and steamed, and served with a sauce that’s about 11/12 ground chilis and 11/12 ground boiled eggs. I know the arithmetic doesn’t work out right, but if you taste it, you’ll understand. They’re too spicy for arithmetic.

Anyways, we tasted lampkyos with egg sambar, and stuffed drum (a squash, not a musical instrument), and candlenut curry, and candied sirenva fruits, and all sorts of rural Ze Cheyan specialties. And left a trail of healed farmers in our wake!

And that sounds like less fun than it was. I’m going to give Csirnis five more fiancé points.

Oh, time for a fret. Csirnis is delicious, but he’s not really being a good dragon. I can’t imagine how we could raise a dragonet the least bit properly, if this is how he’d want to live.

Council of War (Day 66)

We gathered in Ze Cheya over the next three days, all nine of us. Arilash zoomed with travel magic, gathering Osoth and Greshthanu and not Tultamaan the first day, Nrararn the second day, and Llredh and Ythac (who had evidently needed some privacy) the third day. Tultamaan must have offended her somehow — I cannot possibly imagine how — and she didn’t give him a travel spell, and he had to fly there with only the Scratch-the-Sky for extra speed, so he got here late today.

Finally it was nightfall in Ze Cheya. We gathered in a rough circle on the Royal Racecourse, where we had made the cooks work very hard in the day and leave the feast for us. No hovens around. (Not even Tarcuna, who had gotten left in the Prevalian Catacombs excavation site. I was definitely not getting my money’s worth of her tour guide skills.)

Ythac stepped into the center of the circle and spread his wings. “Usually it’s the dragoness who does this, and usually at the end of the mating flight, but I seem to be making a life of doing everything the wrong way ’round. You know it already though. Llredh and I have chosen each other. As mates, I mean.”

“I cannot see that this announcement will have any Appreciable Effect,” said Tultamaan. “This mating flight is already in an Extraordinarily Miserable State. Why not a few more Perversions and Improprieties? There are only so many hours in a day in which we can be Mocked by More Proper Dragons when we return to our home world. They will have to eat and sleep, after all.”

“Your forewings! After more such comments, I will break them, they will be no more useful than your forelegs!” said Llredh with a snarl.

“They will be Healable. Unlike the social damage which will accrue to me for having been Associated with such a mating flight as This,” said Tultamaan, and took a bite of lemon ox.

“Oh, quite true. Half the drakes competing as dragonesses, and still nobody will copulate with you.” said Greshthanu. “Quite impossible to ever live down.”

“Half? Who are the other two?” said Nrararn.

“You and Osoth should know!” hissed Greshthanu, pointing at Osoth with a neatly-gnawed legbone.

“We’re competing for dragonesses, not as them,” said Nrararn, revealing the truth of his words. “In case there’s the least bit of doubt about that.”

“Though we have nothing but the highest esteem for our more spiritually epicene and monoclinous erstwhile rivals,” said Osoth, smoothly if incomprehensibly. “We applaud their bravery in pursuit of their true and essential character, and we offer our most cogent benedictions for the upcoming nuptials, or the invert simulacrum thereof.”

“He said ‘yes’,” I said. “Or maybe ‘no’.”

“He said ‘Glad they’re out of the way,’ is what he said,” hissed Arilash.

Osoth arched his head up. “Nothing so simple and crude as that! I also wished that they would be so happy being out of our way that they would stay out of our way!”

“From the first few days, it looks promising,” said Ythac. He and Llredh grinned at each other and coiled their tailtips together. Still disgusting.

“I trust that you will take an Extended Honeymoon? I understand that the Desert of Vhanff is a Perfectly Splendid Resort for the most Disreputable Sort of hovens. And dragons of your Unnatural Tastes should find no trouble being a pair of hovens for some great length of time to fully enjoy all Sorts of Unmentionable Things,” said Tultamaan.

“Your trust, she is misplaced. Seek her in the place you have lost your manners, your courage, your honor, your forelimbs.” said Llredh. “Of those, surely your forelimbs will be the first you find again!”

Tultamaan reared his head back to breathe at Llredh. Csirnis stuck a wing in front of Tultamaan’s face. “No fighting, Tultamaan, Llredh! You may duel later when important matters have been settled, far over the city where it is safe for the hovens who are our hosts. But remember, Tultamaan, that Llredh is no longer your rival. He is, for all practical purposes, a married drake, and your senior.” Tultamaan crouched before the prince’s glory, and did not strike.

“Also he is, for all practical purposes, seven times the warrior you’ll ever be. Actually, no, we weren’t going to leave the rest of you yet. Unless you drive us out, of course,” said Ythac, glancing at me.

“I’m not going to,” I said, while not eating any ox because I was too upset.

“I’m glad to hear that,” said Ythac, sounding rather sincere.

“I’m going to ruin your wings. Once. Then call us even,” I said. It seemed fair to me.

“Thank you for letting me off so lightly,” said Ythac.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

“Touching little scene, that,” said Arilash.

“But there is something I would like to ask of you — all of you,” said Ythac.

“I don’t know that you’re exactly in a position to extract favors from us,” I said.

Ythac spread his wings and said quietly, “I’m not demanding anything more than a minute or two to ask a favor, and you can refuse the favor. Llredh and I have a particular enemy on Hove, and we would like your assistance dealing with it.”

“You wish us to assault your Ignoble and Disgusting Tendencies? We should be Delighted. What weapon works best on such things? Breath? Teeth?” said Tultamaan, snorting frost.

“Foreclaws,” snapped Llredh. The two of them hissed at each other until Csirnis glared at them.

“Cyoziworms, actually. You all know about them?” Everyone did, by this point. Nobody had worn anything but a dragon shape since they had heard, in fact. Getting conquered by a worm after what we know would be embarrassing beyond words, and probably inconvenient beyond deeds as well.

“Horrible things,” I said, and meant it.

“Llredh and I would like to destroy the entire species,” said Ythac quietly.

“A worthy cause,” said Csirnis. “I shall be glad to help.”

“A total distraction,” said Arilash. I think they’d told her about it in advance; she had her speech prepared. “Yes, they’re horrible. Yes, they’re a wicked minor parasite on the hovens. Yes, Llredh has every reason to take whatever revenge on them he wants, and Ythac to help him. But — they’re not intelligent, they’re not organized. They’re scattered all over Hove. Nine of us could learn the best finding spells, and spend all our time flying around killing them, and they’d reproduce faster than we could kill them. They’re not exactly dangerous to us if we’re paying any attention, and there’s absolutely no glory to be gained for killing one, and no loot either. Llredh, Ythac, you have my utter best wishes in your marriage or whatever you’re going to call it, never doubt that. But I won’t go hunting cyoziworms for you. And if any of my pretty drakes — my remaining pretty drakes — do it, I won’t count it as anything more than it is. I’m not going to give extra credit for killing them, I mean. If you do something brave or wealthsome while you’re doing it, it’s still brave or wealthsome. But spending time away from me, hunting cyoziworms, isn’t going to count in your favor.”

“They’re my pretty drakes too,” I said. “It will count for them in my favor.”

Arilash glared at me. “Jyothky, you’re being stupid. Suppose your husband spends three years of the mating flight hunting worms. That’s a quarter less of a hoard, and not even any good stories about what he did in that time. Your parents will not be impressed. Nobody will. And it’s not like much else you do impresses anyone that much anyways.”

“Taking a deeply moral position which works to one’s practical disadvantage doesn’t impress you, Arilash? A pity. It impresses me. I could do worse than marry Jyothky,” said Csirnis. His words tasted like hot spiced fat to me; I could have married him right then.

“That’s ridiculous, Csirnis!” hooted Arilash. “You can do better than Jyothky!”

“We would be honorable paupers together. We and our outcast friends,” said Csirnis. And that sort of returned me to Hove, or Mhel maybe. To my senses, I mean. He’s beautiful and glorious, but he’s crazy, and he has every sort of contempt for basic draconic society. How could I live with that?

“Csirnis, listen to me. We should have a single standard for the mating flight. It is not fair to the drakes otherwise. You must be able to compete against each other, knowing roughly how you will be judged. Beauty, prowess in battle, prowess in love, hoard — all these are clear enough. Squashing annoying little worms — not so clear. Let us have one standard for the whole flight,” said Arilash.

“Will you agree to abide by our one standard, even if it is killing worms?” asked Csirnis.

Arilash said, “How about this. We shall have a contest, all who agree with you against all who agree with me. If my side prevails, helping Llredh squish worms counts for nothing. I’ll be generous here: brave deeds done while doing so count extra. If your side prevails, drakes can spend a third of their time hunting worms and that counts a lot for Jyothky and me both. But you’ll be generous here: extend the mating flight by half so that everyone can get a good hoard anyways.”

I peered at her. “It sounds like either way, both sides get something of what they wanted.”

“Exactly,” said Arilash. “That’s my kind of dominance contest.”

“Six more years of being Ignored by Nubile Dragonesses,” said Tultamaan. “I know which side I shall be upon.”

“Six more years of a tough mating flight,” said Nrararn. “I, too, know which side I shall be upon. Jyothky, you have my apologies, but fighting worms doesn’t sound very appealing to me.”

“You don’t have to, either way,” I hissed. “You can, is all.”

“Well, I probably won’t,” said Nrararn.

The sides were obvious. Csirnis, Llredh, Ythac, and me wanting to fight the worms. Arilash, Greshthanu, Osoth, Nrararn, and Tultamaan not wanting to. This fight would be a sort of nine-dragon Krage’s Glory: after seven hits, a dragon will drop out of the fight, and the side with any dragons left at the end wins. We thought that was pretty fair.

“The victory, already she is ours,” said Llredh. “The best fighter, the second-best fighter, those are on our side. My husband, he is neither best nor second-best, his top skills are elsewhere, but Osoth cannot stand against him, Nrararn cannot stand against him, Tultamaan will soil himself against him. Jyothky, her breath is mighty, she is probably a match for Osoth or Nrararn.”

Greshthanu mused, “But we’re still a whole dragon up. Arilash plus Tultamaan plus me can probably beat Csirnis plus Llredh. Osoth and Nrararn are kind of evenly matched against Ythac and Jyothky… maybe a bit overmatched, but whoever’s left after three of us take care of Csirnis and Llredh will make up the difference.”

“Your theory, she is a lying puppet of illusion!” said Llredh with a snort. “Ythac, he has depths you know nothing of!”

“I certainly haven’t put bits of myself as deeply into him as you have!” said Greshthanu with a giggle.

“Depths of powerful! Your defeat by us, she will be total and ignominious,” said Llredh.

“We shall all contend with the bravery and passion of the noblest dragons,” said Csirnis. “Let our battle be the stuff of legends and heroic epics, to be remembered a grand of years!”

Unfortunately, Csirnis was right in that.

Hove’s Finest Hour

Our side flew off to the east (the direction that the suns come from), and Arilash’s side off to the west. “We’re outnumbered,” said Ythac. “Let’s even that up, to start with. Let’s start by all attacking Greshthanu. It’ll be a lot easier with him out of the way.”

“Not Arilash?” I said.

“Greshthanu is the more dangerous,” said Csirnis. “And drakes will have fewer compunctions about being fierce to other drakes.”

“I don’t know if I will, actually,” said Ythac. “I’m not used to being … like I am. I mean about drakes and dragonesses. I mean, I am used to it, I’ve always been, but not used to saying it or even really letting myself think it.”

“Love? You are babbling,” said Llredh.

“Oh, yes, I am, aren’t I? What I mean is, I’m happy with either target first.”

Llredh said, “Greshthanu, he shall fail first.”

So much for feminine wiles. We flew to, oh, a mile and a half in the sky, so we’d have room to fall and catch ourselves or each other if we needed. Right over Ze Cheya.

The other side came towards us in a very classic pyramid shape, with Greshthanu conveniently at the point. We flew towards them in a square, with Llredh over Ythac and Csirnis over me. I breathed lightning at them from afar, and Nrararn at us, but everyone was expecting it and avoided it well enough.

We came together fiercely. All four of us did our best to strike at Greshthanu at the same time. So Csirnis and Greshthanu sank their fangs into each others’ necks. Llredh raked at Greshthanu’s left wings, and Ythac at his belly, while Arilash and Osoth harried them as best they could. I kind of landed on Greshthanu’s back, mostly to get out of the air so that Nrararn’s sylphs couldn’t foul my wings. Tultamaan belched ice at Llredh, and probably got in Greshthanu’s way as much as anything, or even Arilash’s.

My drakes did various battleish things that I mostly didn’t see and haven’t asked about. My head was sort of trapped under Greshthanu’s right wings, but pointed at him. I breathed a tight drillsome jet of fire into Greshthanu’s ribs, and then a tight needle of ice. Greshthanu growled, and set his the Small Wall very specifically against lightning coming at his side. So I thumped on his defensive spells with my vô, which is usually not worth doing but seemed to make sense here, and left them full of holes.

Then the whole sky howled with danger, terrible danger, dragon-breaking danger.

We were all too tangled up in combat to do much about it, and we didn’t have much time to think and didn’t know what the danger was. I know I breathed my harshest lightning at Greshthanu then, which was utterly the wrong thing to do.

And the terrible purple rays from the region of Muld in Trest fell upon us, the great Trestean weapons that had threatened all their world. My Hoplonton could not hold them all off, and my vô crisped and scorched under their force, but my body was untouched. I could see a bit of Arilash, with just a Small Wall. She didn’t have the strength in her vô to block them from her, and the tan scales were ripped from her back, and fell, bloody, towards Ze Cheya beneath us. She roared in pain and anger. Six drakes were similarly wounded, and roared their answers to her in kind. I roared too, in anger.

Greshthanu … Greshthanu didn’t have much of his Small Wall left, after I had been breaking it so much, and what he had was tilted against lightning, giving him little enough protection against anything else. And Csirnis and Llredh and Ythac had been attacking him with all their force too.

Greshthanu’s body was ripped apart by the twistor beams. It fell apart in seven pieces, spraying blood and bile and ice and bone. There is no healing spell good enough for that, none enough for even a twelfth part of his injuries.

The eight of us stared aghast. Our fiancé, our companion and friend and gadfly — a whole dragon — slain by the powers of hovens? We keened in our fury and, yes, our fear.

And the sky started to scream danger again.

“Scatter, out of the way!” I called out. “They will strike again soon! Arilash, you must travel now!” My rival had the weakest sort of protections left, and no dangersense. Another great twistor assault might have injured or killed her.

We flew this way and that, and defended ourselves as best we could. Healing spells, travel spells to get out of the way, apotropaics for those whose protections had been weakened in the fight …

The second and third barrage of the Peace Everywhere Array came from Trest in the sky, hitting at where we had been.

We weren’t there, though.

The capitol of Ze Cheya was next in line. There was nothing that could have protected it from the power of Trest. The twistors carved vast arcs of destruction in the crowded streets, and ripped the ancient temples out of the ground and flung them in a blind cyclopean bombardment across the city that had been wholly innocent, and wholly generous, and wholly beautiful. In retrospect at least.

The Magic Trumpet of Dorday’s headline that day called it “Hove’s Finest Hour.” And said that all of us had been killed.

Ruins

The main tower of Ze Cheya’s national radio station had been smashed, but some of the lesser stations had survived. They somehow caught the words of Archconsul Shuvanne of Trest, and broadcast them.

For some weeks, there have been reports of terrible monsters, destroying and fornicating and ravaging, probably released from the deadliest depths of Garchune by the apostates and anti-consulars who still remain in Ghemelia. We have been monitoring the situation as the beasts increased the range and ferocity of their devastations. Starting with Trestean army outposts in Ghemelia, and testing their weaponry by melting parts of the Khamrou mountains. Increasing to holy sites like the Kyongsy Temple outside of Trest. Then to actual attacks within Trest itself, in Dorday and Churry City. Finally they revealed the fullness of their destructive intentions, and were only prevented from utterly obliterating Port-of-Zom by the most extreme efforts and severe sacrifices of the Vlechinse army and air force.

In solidarity with decent and orthodox people everywhere, with our cousins the Vlechinse, and in protection of our own interests, I ordered the Peace Everywhere Array to strike at the monsters the next time they were gathered in a single place. Earlier today, they gathered in the air over Ze Cheya. The King of Ze Cheya struck a diabolical alliance with the infernal beasts. They were allowed to range freely in his country, choosing their own victims to devour or worse among his citizens. In exchange they supported his own non-consular regime and started preparing to assault the peace-loving people of the world.

Intelligence reports confirm that they were planning to attack Trest. General Marzoni, in charge of the Peace Everywhere Array, notified me and asked for my recommendation. I ordered him to eliminate the monsters.

Three full barrages of fifteen projectors each were used in the attack, separated by thirty seconds. I firmly believe that the monsters were entirely destroyed by Trest’s attack. Trest’s military, by the grace of Drukah and Bmern, is superior to any monsters from Garchune.

In any operation of this nature, some civilian casualties are inevitable. The Trestean government officially regrets any such. However, the final responsibility for these casualties belongs to the King of Ze Cheya for making common cause with demons.

We trust that the decent people of Hove will join us in our applause and enthusiastic support for the Peace Everywhere Array and the Trestean military.

Good night, and may Drukah and Bmern bless and protect all people.

We listened to this as we worked under the terrible cloud. By ‘we’ I mean eight dragons and many thousands of hovens. By ‘terrible cloud’ I mean a huge black stormcloud that Nrararn and Osoth had put together, obscuring Ze Cheya from above. The Zeanese Minister of Defense was pretty sure that the Peace Everywhere Array could fire through clouds, but it couldn’t see to choose its targets. We (just dragons) wore the Esrret-Sky-Painted and the Hoplonton, in case.

And by ‘worked’ I mean … well, whatever needed to be done that could be done. Lots couldn’t be. My first task was the Mana Masala apartment complex, I picked just the nearest ruined building that I saw really. The twistor ray had hit one of its four towers, Tower Two. That one was simply gone, ripped and spun apart (just like Greshthanu my fiancé, (I was cool and clear-headed and focussed, because that’s how dragons are when there’s danger. I would think about him and mourn him when the emergency is over)). Its beams and girders and hovens and furniture had become missiles, slammed through the other buildings with fearsome force. There was nothing to do for anyone who had been in that building: only by scent could we tell which puddle had been a hoven and which had been a particularly large dog.

But in the other buildings, there was plenty to do. Seven huge boulders of masonry had been flung entirely through Tower Three, and a thousand smaller missiles as well. I levitated and peeked into the topmost hole, where tenasense said that the roof would soon fall in, and plucked out a handful of screaming crying hovens and carried them to the ground. They begged me to go look for their two younger children, so I did. One of them was cut in half by an oven door from Tower Two. The other had only had an arm and a leg crushed. I scooped them both up and flew them to the rest of their family, and put the Arcane Anodyne and the slow healing spells into the one that still lived.

And that was the first of a hundred and sixty apartments in the first of three buildings near the first of dozens and dozens that the twistor rays had struck. There really was plenty to do.

The first hour: Uncovering seventy-three dead hovens of an assortment of ages, mostly crushed, but three of them burnt by fires from the very dangerous and incendiary liquid they use to fuel their stoves. Healing another thirty-one hovens. Refusing to heal another eighteen: fifteen who weren’t that badly hurt and I needed to track down others, three with back injuries that I couldn’t do anything quick about no matter how much I sympathized, who didn’t believe me when I told them the first time about the slow healing spells in them. Picking another ninety-something out of the building before it fell down. Assaulting with ice breath (me) and a localized thunderstorm (Nrararn) on a huge blue-white fire where a tree had been flung through a big tank of that very dangerous and incendiary liquid.

A quick visit by King Zakuna. His guards wouldn’t let him dig people out of the ruins and the rubble with his own hands, like he wanted. But they let him drive around the city, surveying the damage, offering water and encouragement to the hovens who were working. I gave him a quick sad look when he drove to Maya Masala Tower Four, which had fallen down while I was dealing with that fire. I was digging in the rubble with my forepaws like a huge dog, to where someone was calling for help.

“Jyothoky! We of Ze Cheya grieve that our hospitality and protection for our honored guests has become inadequate,” said the king.

“You’re sending us off? We’re going to leave soon anyways. We’ve got a bit of revenge to attend to. But you’re right, your city is in jeopardy as long as we remain here.”

“No, no, nothing of the sort!” called the king. “You are not our enemy. You have brought grace and healing.” (I took a moment to be so impressed with Csirnis for charming Ze Cheya) “To us, I mean. I do not know the truth of what you have brought elsewhere.” (I took a moment to be so ashamed with Llredh and myself for blasting Port-of-Zom.) “We regret that the peace and cooperation that has been the hallmark of your visit in Ze Cheya has not prevailed on your entire visit to Hove, and that other nations have chosen to reply with great violence.”

“I’m sorry too,” I said. “They should have waited ’til we went back to Ghemelia. One moment…” I prised a huge sheet of building-stone up, revealing four and a half hovens who had been trapped under it. The friable, artificial, overstressed stone crumbled in my forepaws, and chunks of it fell upon the hovens and crushed them. “Oh, no!” I got busy with the Arcane Anodyne and digging, and got three of them out alive.

The king and his guards scrambled out of the limousine. The guards knew medicine. Zakuna threw them his formal jacket, and they ripped it up for bandages. Zakuna scrabbled in the wreckage for a pair of straight sticks, and his guards made them into a splint. Zakuna held the hands of the two daughters while I dug the corpse of their father up, and he started the Zeanese prayer for the dead. I couldn’t help with that.

I smelled at the corpse, though. He was the brave cook who had given me an extra ladleful of sauce.

“I’m sorry. I’m going to keep …” I looked at the father, the cook, who had been alive before the stone had crumbled and fallen on him, whom I might have fought to defend, and never would have killed. I couldn’t think of any good way to end the sentence, I couldn’t say ‘saving people’ when I had just fumbled and killed.

(Afterwards — I’m not even sure if I should count him as a kill or not. Accidental if at all, of course. Would the building-rock have broken on its own? Maybe — it was awfully fragile. Would they have been rescued before some of them died? Maybe — they were badly hurt before I got there, and hoven ears wouldn’t have heard them to rescue them. Actually I think I won’t be counting kills at all today, and not for a while. Even if Dad knows exactly how many of what species he’s killed in his whole life, doesn’t mean I have to know or care.)

And the rest of the day went like that, only mostly with fewer kings and nobody else I knew. Curset swallowed Virtuet, and we labored. Curset relinquished Virtuet, and we labored. The Zeanese brought machines and engines from elsewhere on the island, big scoops to dig and grapples to lift. Many, many hovens came, bringing food and medicine, clothes and blankets, offers of hospitality and refuge. Damma sent supplies and equipment, despite their frequent hostility to Ze Cheya.

Virtuet went behind the Godaxle, leaving the world dim and pink and green. Hovens brought out lamps, bright without fuel, and kept hunting for survivors, though the hunting was getting scanty. We needed no such lamps, and we searched and dug and healed and repaired and, for Csirnis and I and a few others, apologized.

Virtuet came out from behind the Godaxle, and we labored more. Three airplanes with the dagger-and-coin sigil of Trest roared out from Nrararn’s cloud, and we felt their eyes upon us. I touched one of them with lightning, and its engines died and it glided. The other two arced upwards, into the cloud, and escaped. We were too tired to give them chase.

But Zeanese soldiers ran to the fallen plane, and took the pilot and the co-pilot prisoner, and asked them a few quick questions. When they heard the answers, they sent messengers to the king and to all the dragons, saying, “Trest and the armies of Trest now know that many dragons survived.”

We could stay no longer. Trest would surely attack, sooner or later. Ze Cheya did not deserve what had happened to them already. We would not subject them to any more: certainly we would not risk another massacre of hovens to help save a few more. We took Greshthanu’s body. Osoth called up the ghosts of great birds of forgotten ages, and Arilash gave them a dragon’s semblance, and we sent them flying slowly across the Sayanamma Sea. Then we hid ourselves with other illusions, and Arilash gave us spells for speed, and we raced across in a different direction to hide in the mountains of Damma. To sleep — and oh, we needed sleep! — and, when we woke, to plan our vengeance.

Peace Everywhere (Day 68)

Peaceful Sleep

“No, I’m not going to wake her up. You wake her up if you want her awake,” hissed Nrararn.

Ňẫsśuò, Mẩŝśuò I mumbled. “I’m not asleep, I’m awake.” I was, too, obviously. Nobody speaks Grand Draconic in their sleep. Every dragonet explains this to their parents on many mornings.

“Arilash isn’t,” said Nrararn. “Osoth wants the Melismatic Tempest. He left some things in some catacombs.”

“Oh! I left some things in some catacombs too!”

Osoth peered at me over Nrararn’s wings. “Subtle dragoness, to conceal your riches in my own domain of research! Beware, beware — it is not mine alone, a veritable horde of petty archaeologists and overzealous, underskilled seminarians seek the origins of their religion in the corpses of its martyrs. They will take your treasures for their own, if they find them!”

“Just Tarcuna,” I said. “We’ll probably want her soon.”

“Subcontractest thou thy mating duties to thine whore?” hissed Osoth, and giggled.

I snapped at his wing, and missed. “No, no. She studied weapons engineering. In Trest.”

“A course of studies which inevitably leads to whoredom, in one form or another!” chirped Osoth, drawing back.

“Well, if you’re stolen by a cyoziworm, it might,” I said. “Anyways, I get to wake Arilash up. Where is she, anyways?”

She was curled up with, and rather stuck to, Csirnis. Obviously they had been up a bit after I had gone to sleep. This made me jealous, so I woke them both up with a sharp gust of ice breath.

Tried to, rather. Csirnis awoke instantly — his dangersense is as good as mine — and managed to interpose himself between my breath and my rival. “Oh, good morning, Jyothky. I’m not sure that today is quite the best time for dominance contests. And I’m not quite sure that they really count quite as much if your opponent is fast asleep.”

“Good morning, Csirnis! I was trying to wake her up, not have a contest. Osoth and I need some travel spells.”

“Ice breath might be a bit much for your first alarm,” said Csirnis, as he healed himself.

“A screaming argument didn’t wake her! Or you, either,” I said.

“Two of them, actually,” noted Nrararn.

Csirnis lowered his wings. “You could have just nipped her a bit.”

I made sure my illusion spells were strong, and lied, “That never works on me. I forgot it’d work for other people.”

Csirnis regarded me closely. “Naturally you are unused to the basic properties of the people who surround you.”

“Stop teasing me, Csirnis. Just wake Arilash up, will you?”

“I’m not asleep, I’m awake,” mumbled Arilash in Grand Draconic.

So we got our the Melismatic Tempests, Osoth and I, and wrapped ourselves in many illusions, and headed off to another continent, trailing a wide wake of thorny music.

Love and Peace

We landed at the Prevalian Catacombs. The archaeologists swarmed around Osoth, glad that he had not been slaughtered in Ze Cheya, hoping that he was back to invoke the spirit of this or that mummy who might (if yesterday’s discoveries are to be interpreted cleverly) have been St. Ovolo in life.

Osoth scattered them. “Not for long shall I linger; soon my wings shall carry me hence. Nor should you wish for me to stay. The hand that turned the Peace Everywhere Array against us at Ze Cheya might well turn it towards us at the Prevalian Tombs. And that would destroy all, beyond any hope of archaeology to recover. For the moment, bring me the mask and the sceptre which were my prizes — you have photographed them fully, have you not? — and bring my sweet fiancée her sweet concubine.”

Mask, sceptre, and concubine were duly acquired. The mask and sceptre were old and grotty and dusty, not very beautiful and not magical at all. I hope they’ve got some sort of historic interest, or they’re pretty mediocre treasure.

The concubine was yawning, rubbing her eyes, and dressed in loose blue pants and an oversized baggy shirt that didn’t flatter her all that much. “Hi, Spotty,” she said. “You survived somehow, I guess.”

“Most of us did. Greshthanu died, though … we’ll talk more about that in the air.”

“Oh? Where are we going? And are we going to be blasted by the Peace Everywhere Array while we’re flying?”

“I’m not sure where, I’ll ask Ythac after we’ve started flying. And we didn’t get shot at on the way here. I think our aerial invisibility spells are good enough,” I said. “How have you been enjoying yourself?”

“I’ll tell you that after we’ve started flying,” she said with a bit of a smile.

Half or seven-twelfths of an hour later, Tarcuna was roped securely to my back, and we were flying off to, as it happened, our original camp in Ghemelia. The drakes wanted to pick up whatever they had managed to hoard there. Drakes have a great deal of trouble giving up anything they’ve collected, even if it’s not very much and getting it back is some risk.

“Well, that was a nice little vacation. Kind of odd for a sex worker to not have sex on her job, but have some on the vacation!”

“Oh? What happened?” I asked.

“… I … suppose I should have asked your permission, shouldn’t I have done? Since you’ve got my privates rented. But you weren’t using ’em, nor the rest of me,” said Tarcuna.

“I don’t mind. Just tell me what happened,” I said. I didn’t mind, after a bit of thought. Tarcuna had seemed a touch obsessed with me since I fixed her. Bad enough that she’s having a passion with another female — actually I do mind some — but at least that female is not me.

“Oh, I had a lightning-fast affair with Macra,” she said. “Smiles across the room to tongues between the legs in ten minutes flat.”

“Macra the Ozgrani seminary student, or Macra the wife of Director Viliwr?” asked Osoth.

“Macra the wife of Director Viliwr,” said Tarcuna. “Viliwr asked her to find some clothes for me, we went to her tent, and next thing you know I was giving away free samples and then some. Probably good that I got out of there when I did, though. Secrets don’t stay kept in that sort of camp. And Director Viliwr is a strict Regulator.”

“A what?”

“A Regulator. A very orthodox sect which has very orthodox and very strong opinions on who can do what to whom. They don’t approve of adultery, or prostitution, or girls who prefer girls. Or lots of other things, but those are the ones that would probably get him to divorce Macra.”

“You haven’t told me much about Macra,” I said. “But why would she want to stay married to someone like that?”

“Maybe two parts love, five parts love for their son, and three parts not wanting to get despised. You can do worse for yourself than get divorced for invert adultery — I managed to do worse for myself — but she’d really not have a very good status after that. Not even in Trest, and we’re relatively progressive about it. Definitely not in Vlechinse, where she’s from.”

“Well. Did you enjoy it at least?”

“Oh, yes. Having free will and a non-commercial fling is such a treat, I can’t tell you the tenth of it. How’s your own erotic voyage? You’re engaged to that big grey dragon over there, aren’t you?”

“We could stop, at need, and demonstrate our amatory prowess to Tarcuna. It is not beyond draconic comprehension!” said Osoth.

“Beyond mine. I don’t have any oil,” I said. “I’d probably strip all the skin off your hemipenis.”

“Marital prowess, martial prowess — these are never far apart for dragons, but rarely closer than for Jyothky,” said Osoth philosophically.

“Let’s worry about surviving first. We can figure out the twining after that,” I said.

“An optimistic attitude!” said Osoth. “For if we should fail to survive, we would also fail to, as you put it, twine.”

“Like Greshthanu,” I said. “I never got to couple with him, did you know? My mother told me to make sure to. Now I never will.”

Which was a good argument for doing it, I suppose, but neither of us felt much like it after I had invoked his name.

Peaceful Discussions

We got back to the camp at the base of the Khamrou Voresc. It smelled rather of recent dragons, and the desert was dug up here and there by claws. But it was completely deserted. Even Murghal had decamped.

«Right. Where is everybody?» I scribbled to Ythac.

«Oh, I forgot to tell you. We’re in a big cave under Khamrou Psulcho. Out of the desert sunlight, the thunderstorms, the tornadoes, and the purple ray guns,» he wrote back, and drew a map. So we lumbered back into the air and flew another six dozen miles, complaining about the rudeness of our fiancés and allies all the while.

Finally we were reunited. Nine dragons (one of them shredded and encased in stone), plus one hoven. It was a big cave before Tultamaan had gotten there, and he had made it much larger, and with stone magic sculpted a ring of eight stone couches around Greshthanu’s catafalque.

“The first Question we must consider is, are we presently in a position of safety? I would be willing to forgo the pleasure of another round of those purple rays. I daresay that one or two of you would even be willing to forgo the pleasure of Seeing Me In It if it meant that you would get hit by it too,” said Tultamaan.

“Seeing you — her I can live without. Shutting You Up, her I cannot live without,” said Llredh.

Tarcuna laughed. “None of you know the first thing about twistor beams, do you?”

“I know what it feels like to get hit by one,” said Arilash. “Can you say the same?”

“This must be your fearless whore, Jyothky,” said Nrararn.

“My fearless native who knows a lot about the local weapons!” I said. “I don’t think she’s a whore any more. She’s upgraded to ‘slut’.”

“Some upgrade,” said Tarcuna. “That just means I don’t get paid anymore.”

“Well, I’m going to pay you for your weapons engineering,” I said. “That should make up for it.”

“Well, I’m certainly not going to upgrade to traitor!” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

Tarcuna stood up by my forefeet. “I do believe you’re about to attack Trest, right?”

“Yes, of course. Trest attacked us,” I said.

“And do you remember what country I’m from?” she asked.

“Well, Trest.”

“Right then. Do you really think I’m going to tell a bunch of alien monsters all the military secrets of my native country?” she asked.

“Alien monsters who saved you,” I said. “You owe me your life and more.”

My life, sure,” said Tarcuna. “You have my life, my heart, and my pussy. They’re not worth very much anyways. My country, I don’t owe you.”

“Yes you do,” hissed Llredh. “Your military secrets, you tell them to us, or your death, she is very artistic but not very fast.”

“‘scuse me, I need to pee,” said Tarcuna. She walked over towards Llredh, unbuttoning her pants.

“Not on Llredh!” I said.

“Aww. You are such a boring one, Jyothky,” she said with a laugh.

“Your brave hoven, she is too brave,” grumbled Llredh. “She does not say what she should say, and she always wants to challenge me.”

“Well, if you’re thinking of killing her, talk to me first. She’s under my protection ’til I tell you otherwise,” I said.

“Fine, fine. I do not kill her. If she pisses on me, I piss on her, and we see whose bladder is the mightier!”

“Jyothky, Llredh, please stop. Jyothky, either get your native consultant to consult with us, or put her outside. Llredh, if you wish to void excretions, use a side cave,” said Csirnis in a prissy voice.

I glared at Tarcuna. “Do you remember what Llredh did to the warehouse and its block at Port-of-Zom? The first huge fire?”

She nodded. “Yeah. I know he can kill me as quick as look at me. I really don’t care.”

“That was one fire breath. Just one. And it wasn’t a particularly large one, either,” I said.

“So?”

“So how long do you think it would take, oh, three of us to destroy Dorday with fire?”

That got her attention, and made her do some mental calculations too. “Oh. Half an hour?”

“Close enough. Twelve minutes maybe, depending on how ruined we wanted it and who was breathing. How long would it take us to destroy every city in Trest?”

“Not very many days. Are you going to do that?”

“We’re deciding that now. The less we know, the more conservative we’ll be. That means, the more of it we’ll destroy,” I said. “So the more you tell us, the more we’ll know and the less we’ll burn. Your call.”

“You are a bunch of monsters!” she said.

“Except Csirnis, maybe, and I wouldn’t push him too far,” I said.

“Well … I don’t know any Trestean military secrets,” said Tarcuna. “For some reason, they don’t teach them to second-year engineering students very often, or whores even.”

“Just tell us a few basic things. Like, how do those twistor beams work?”

“I guess it’s not treason if it’s in all the textbooks, is it? And that museum you saw.”

“It just saves us from going and getting the textbooks, is all. And it’ll make us a bit more kindly disposed towards Tresteans, which will probably mean fewer deaths too,” I said.


Peace Everywhere Array

This is going to be boring, but I want to at least write it down. The Peace Everywhere Array is, ultimately, nothing more than some very big twistor ray guns, but a great deal of engineering and cleverness has made them very dangerous.

Twistor rays are the classic purple-beamed Hoven ray guns. They shoot torque. They make things spin. The work best on things with lots of little parts, which will spin independently and usually go flying off in all directions. They work worst on things like mountains which are one piece and anchored to something really big and immobile.

Here’s what’s special about the Peace Everywhere Array.

  1. Every point of Hove is visible from at least eight guns, out of the 82 (according to Ythac’s finding spells) currently active. They are expensive fancy tricky guns that can cross all of Hove — hand rayguns only go a few hundred feet.
  2. They are mostly concealed or protected. Some are under heavy stone domes; some are on train tracks and move around some are on very big boats moving around in a lake.
  3. Some of them have other tricks. Like mostly each gun has a huge torque battery — “huge” being “a whole lot bigger than me”. The battery is big enough for one shot. Then some very big machines roll the spent battery out and put a new one in, and that’s not very fast. One set of guns can hold seven batteries, though, and thus can shoot seven times in quick succession, so that’s a useful trick for something.
  4. Really the fancy thing about the Peace Everywhere Array isn’t the guns. It’s the thousands and thousands of cameras and other technology senses which give a pretty good view of all of Hove — when cloud cover and daylight permit — and lets the Tresteans point their guns at pretty much anything they want. Accurately enough to destroy one building of their choice, though it won’t be good for the buildings next to it either, or the brave cooks who live in them.
  5. Building new twistor guns which twist as hard as the Peace Everywhere guns isn’t that hard — fifty countries can do it, maybe more. If we destroy the Peace Everywhere Array, Trest could probably have it back as good as new in a year or two.

“Thank you, Tarcuna. That’s very helpful,” said Csirnis. “It saved us at least two hours of flight and library work. And I, for one, have a much better opinion of Tresteans, by reason of the dignity of your words.”

Tarcuna blushed. Csirnis could probably have seduced her then if he had wanted. (Me, too.) Well, or paid, if he’d wanted Tarcuna.

Peace Process

“First things first. We must destroy the Peace Everywhere Array,” said Ythac.

“The obvious, you are her master,” said Llredh. Ythac gave him a hurt look, so Llredh added, “My heart, you are his master, too.”

“I wish you’d stop doing that in public,” I muttered. The only one who didn’t ignore me was Tarcuna, who picked up a big stone and hammered on my muzzle. I gave her a hurt look, imitating Ythac, and she calmed down.

“I think you’re both right,” said almost everyone else, in one way or another.

“I think that Jyothky and I should do it. Finding them will be finding, and I’m best at that. Destroying them will be breathwork, and she’s the best of us at that,” said Ythac.

“I will come along! Lightning and storms will be very helpful,” said Nrararn.

“The lightning, the storms, they are not so helpful as all that,” said Llredh.

Quarrel quarrel argue argue quarrel bicker, went Nrararn.

“The fiancé points, Ythac no longer needs them, he has a better. The seduction of Jyothky, if he had ever wanted, long ago he would have made,” said Llredh.

Quarrel quarrel argue argue quarrel bicker, went Nrararn some more.

“The long trip with Jyothky, the common purpose with her, this is what he wants. The peace with the old friend, this is what he would make,” said Llredh.

“Right. I’ll go,” I said.

I think that the Entire Situation has ceased to be Utterly Perfect. It now contains a Flaw. Possibly even Two. It is no longer what you might call Impeccable, or even Superb. It admits to the occasional trace of Imperfection. But I don’t suppose anyone could endure the shame of agreeing with me. Even when I am simply Stating the Obvious,” said Tultamaan, grooming his forewing.

Arilash sighed. “It’s pretty awful, you’re absolutely right Tultamaan. We are going to have a bit of work avenging Greshthanu, and making Hove safe enough for us to finish the mating flight in peace. Real pax draconica, I mean, not Peace Everywhere Array kind of peace.”

“You are still Missing The Obvious, Arilash. You have not Noticed the Most Salient Features of the Situation. Perhaps if you were to think with your Brain rather than your Claspers you might have noticed, but, well, y’don’t,” said Tultamaan. “Hovens Can Kill Us. This Is Troublesome, Or, Perhaps More Than Troublesome. We Should Not Allow Ourselves To Be Killed.”

“Csirnis, you have encouragement to thrash me if I start to kill one of my fiancés before we’ve dealt with Trest,” said Arilash.

“You are an exceedingly Fortunate dragoness, to have so many fiancés that you can kill one or two of the more Clear-Minded Ones and not miss them,” said Tultamaan. “Especially after losing three of the less Clear-Minded Ones in quick succession.”

“Csirnis, if I don’t kill Tultamaan as soon as I have the chance, could you remind me that I meant to?” said Arilash.

“I think that is quite uncalled-for. Of both of you,” said Csirnis.

“Nrararn, Osoth, could you keep an eye on Tarcuna and make sure that she doesn’t try to kill Llredh while his husband’s not here to protect him?” I said.

If you have the courage,” said Tarcuna. Crazy hoven!

Peace Nowhere

Ythac and I flew for Trest. More accurately, Ythac and I and eleven sylphs (courtesy of Nrararn) and thirty vengeful ghosts of recently-dead Zeanese (courtesy of Osoth) and an assortment of spells (courtesy of almost everyone) flew for Trest. Not Greshthanu’s ghost — that would be disrespectful. The Melismatic Tempest was certainly going to be useful, and the Horizonal Quill if Ythac and I got separated. The rest we thought of as mainly well-wishes by our friends.

“I’m still waiting for you to break my wings,” said Ythac.

“Not today. We’re busy, today,” I told him.

“I suppose … we can take a few minutes out and take care of it,” he said. “Revenge will keep.”

“I don’t want to do a rush job of it,” I said. “I want it to count.”

“Well, of course. I don’t think you’re going to forgive me ’til you do it.”

“I don’t think I’m going to do it ’til I forgive you!” I said. “And that won’t be today.”

“If you and the Tresteans kill me today, I’ll be upset, forgiven or not,” said Ythac.

“That’s not even a good joke. I’m not going to kill you. I’m trying to figure out whether we can be friends or not, is all. I can’t even trust you. You said that you loved me. Not something reasonable like you thought you could learn to love me after being married together for a few duodecades. That you actually loved me right then.”

He looked miserable a bit. “Well, you’re my best friend. That’s a kind of love, isn’t it?”

“A better kind than the one you actually use the word ‘love’ for these days! And pretty much a lie.”

Ythac said darkly, “I was hoping to bind myself by my words. I don’t much like being what I am. I ought to love you, I do love you by some meaning of the word. I was hoping that, if I told you, if I promised, I would do it.”

I snorted sparks of lightning. “Didn’t work, did it? The first chance you had to love another drake, you took.”

Ythac hissed at me. “I had to save Llredh! I could hardly leave him as the slave of a worm!”

“I think that two or three of us could have knocked him down and given him surgery. Or maybe he’d have shifted back to protect himself and the worm, and that would have freed him too. You didn’t have to do what you did!” I was roaring by that point.

“Maybe be a bit quieter, Jyothky? There are planes over there; they can maybe hear you. Shall we kill them?” I looked over to the left, where Ythac was looking. Half a dozen jets were flying more or less towards us. Zooming much faster than I can fly naturally, but rather dawdling compared to flying with the Melismatic Tempest.

“They did kill my fiancé, so killing them would be a good idea. Except not them, just their comrades-in-arms. Let’s not get distracted today. Especially let’s not get distracted and have an aerial duel with some stupid fighter jets and get twisted to bits by the Peace Everywhere Array,” I said. “Besides, they don’t seem to see us.” Someday they’ll figure out how to see through the Esrret-Sky-Painted, I’m sure.

“OK! I just don’t want you to think that I’m not brave enough. ’cause of who I love, I mean.”

I had to think about that, as we crossed the official border into Trest. “You haven’t been such a Tultamaan the last few days. The way you rescued Llredh was brave. Disgusting, but brave. And if you’re going to act married with him and bring him to Mhel, that’s awfully brave.”

“Good … My father was always after me to be a better drake. Braver, prettier, stronger, tougher. Fightier toward other drakes.”

“He knew about you and other drakes?”

“Oh, yes. For years before you and I met. And here we are, at the Magistrate Beanfeld Array Site.” We circled twice to look at it. It wasn’t a very impressive place: an octagon of big tents, and some paved roads connecting them, spread out over a quarter of a mile, surrounded by coils of sharp wire and a few sheds with a few soldiers as guards. Ythac poked with a finding spell. “The actual twistor projectors are in the first and fourth tents.”

“Destroy all the tents anyways?” I asked. “Impress them with the thoroughness of our power?”

“Maybe just the ones with twistors,” he said. “Impress them with the precision of our power. Thoroughness means we should go back and blast those jets.”

So we burnt just the two tents. Each one had a heavy apparatus the size of a small house. The chimney — a heavy tube of metal, painted purple, with a few pipes or cables around it — was mounted on gimbals, with motors, so that it could point at any part of the sky. A heavier cable, thicker than my tail, connected the base of the tube to the rest of the house: one moderate-sized engine which produced the twistor beam proper, and some huge lifter machines for changing the batteries quickly. The batteries were huge tubs of orange metal. If one were knocked flat, I could have sprawled on it, head and body. I don’t think I’m strong enough to knock one flat just by force though. I’d need a lever, or some burrowing, or some such.

“Precision is all very well, but let’s ruin it completely at least,” I said. I melted the engines and the gimbals with fire breath, and they ran and stank and puffed out noxious smoke. Ythac breathed fire on a battery, which just melted a bit. Then he grinned at me, and we conspired, and he breathed darkness on while I breathed deep metal-shrinking cold. Its casing failed, and it started to unwind. A battery that big can store a great deal of torque, and when it unwinds, it can throw many things around rather quickly. Ythac and I flew half a mile up, and we still had to dodge lumps of stone and metal.

“I don’t think that counts as ‘precision’ exactly, Ythac,” I said, when the whirling violence had stopped.

“No, nor ‘our power’ either, exactly, since we mostly let their power out. Nice and destructive though. Shall we do another one, or should we go on to the other eighty-one installations?”

“Another one. We might as well have fun with this chore,” I said. We flew as high as we could and still reach the battery with cold and darkness. The second battery’s casing shattered beneath our combined breaths, and we flew away giggling as the hovens’ hoarded power wrecked their own weapon camp.

Our attendant ghosts cheered. I suppose that was useful of them.

Ythac and I grinned at each other, too. There’s no remedy for a spat between friends like visiting flaming, whirling death upon your enemies.

Peace and War

The second twistor installation was six projectors in the open, with no particular attempt to hide anything. They melted nicely. The third installation was tented like the first, and no more trouble. The fourth was in a glass dome underwater, and we whipped the lake into a shardful niobium-rich froth when we broke the dome and released its batteries. The fifth was three projectors on short and very heavy rails, so that they could be hidden in a mountain in case of rain, snow, or enemy attack, and if they had been inside we might have had to work a bit more. The sixth was back in the open again. By then we had found our rhythm, and demolished it in three pairs of breaths.

We’d been flying around plenty, and were pretty sure that the Tresteans couldn’t see us through the Esrret-Sky-Painted (since they hadn’t shot us yet), and we had gotten used to being invisible. The seventh, Cone of Heaven Park, was another tented one, like the first. The hoven soldiers had already started to flee before we got there; we assumed that the word of the first six emplacements being destroyed had started to get around. We swooped down, melted two engines, and circled a bit waiting for our whefô to refill (Ythac) or blasting engines with lightning (me).

And the whole sky roared danger to us, huge terrible dragon-breaking danger.

Well, we knew what to do about that. We cracked the air and sped away as fast as eight wings and two Melismatic Tempests could carry us! Which was the right thing to do. We were no more than three miles away when two dozen Peace Everywhere beams played over Cone of Heaven Park.

We turned and watched. This wasn’t the simple second-hand destruction that had come to Ze Cheya, nor the clawtip pricks that we had used to ruin the first few projectors. The huge batteries were scattered around, the mighty engines ripped into shards and shavings, and no stone was left atop another stone nor plastic atop another plastic. Ythac and I together could work no such devastation, nor a twelfth part of it, or not as fast at least. Probably our parents couldn’t either.

“I suppose we ought to thank them, for finishing the job for us,” said Ythac, very quietly.

I didn’t feel flippant though. I started reciting in Grand Draconic: “Xhê tśiīaő šsyẵiąỳśś Ếsrŕyů…”. Which is to say, “Thou art Esrret, with thine own wings dragging a molten star from heaven to fall among us. Thou art the Morliu; when we bit off thy forepaw, thou cast thine blood into our eyes to blind us. Thou art Elelizet, locking thine jaws in death in our throat. Thou art Shirivve, carrying the Narnu to the depths of the sky to keep it from us…” After a few words, Ythac joined me, and we recited the whole thing in unison.

It’s a praise-song for an enemy willing to accept the most terrible wounds in order for revenge (Esrret, Elelizet) or giving a child a chance to escape (the Morliu) or hiding a sacred vessel (Shirivve), or various other purposes in various other lines. One has to be very impressed indeed to say it to small people. But the Tresteans had just shown that they commanded more-than-draconic energies. And that they were resourceful enough to use the few moments in which we could be located to attack us. And that they were willing to pour out their strength and even their lives to strike at us — somehoven must have been in the control booth, on the telephone, telling the other Peace Everywhere emplacements that we were there, and that one could not possibly have survived.

“Not that anyone that ‘thou art’ in that song actually wins,” said Ythac.

“I don’t plan to let the Tresteans win! Besides, didn’t Elelizet survive? She was the mother of Ghanimaan, wasn’t she?” I said.

“Wasn’t that the other Elelizet? Smerdaleon’s wife? Or am I getting them confused?” said Ythac.

“I don’t remember my ancient draconic history very well,” I said. “It’s all from before we got astral magic. Not very important anymore.”

“It’s an important part of our cultural heritage!” he said. “You know that! You’re the one who started reciting it first!”

“True. I’ll learn more … oh … when I have a hatchling to teach it to,” I said.

“Fair enough. … I had better find some other reason. Llredh and I won’t have hatchlings.”

“No, you won’t.”

He hissed at me. “I’m just glad he wasn’t here, Jyothky. He doesn’t have dangersense. He’d likely not have gotten away in time.”

“Now we’re back to you being disgusting, Ythac,” I wisely and kindly pointed out.

“Right. Never mind that then,” he said.

“Well, I guess we don’t need to worry about Cone of Heaven Park, in any case. Where’s next?”

He cast a finding spell. “Dark Snake River is closest.”

“How about a different question. Which one is the closest one that doesn’t have other giant twistor cannons aimed at it? Can your spell find that?” I said.

“Good thought!” He poked around with a spell. “Osmogoth Point, off the other direction.”

So we flew to Osmogoth Point, which was only half-built, with just one projector working. I hissed at Ythac when we were half a dozen miles away, “You stop here. I’ll go melt it alone.”

He hissed back at me, “What, what? That’s silly! I’ve got plenty of fire breath!”

“You’ve also got a husband to mourn you if you get twisted apart. I’ve just got some suitors who’ll probably be nearly as happy without me,” I said.

He blinked at me. “Did you just forgive me or something?”

“Do your wings hurt terribly? No? Then I have not! … But my best friend’s husband is my best friend’s husband. Even if it’s disgusting. Now, stay here and be useful and play with information magic and tell me if they start aiming anything dangerous at Osmogoth Point, will you?”

He levitated there, half a mile above nowhere in particular, while I flew down and breathed three very narrow needles of flame into the bowels of the Osmogoth Point projector. None of the playful devastation of the previous times, not there. The Peace Everywhere Array was a mighty and wily foe, not a simple small person city to destroy at leisure.

But we did destroy it. Very slowly and carefully. We’d fly to one side of Trest, and I’d break a few projectors as quickly as I could. (Lightning will usually ruin the generator, though not destroy it beyond repair as fire will. Cold is useless without darkness breath also.) Ythac would watch for the rest of the Array hearing about it and starting to point their weapons at me. When they did, we’d fly off to another emplacement, a sixth of the continent off maybe. It was all rather like killing a huge sluggish giant armed with a huge hammer. One hit from the hammer and I’d have been dead. But a bit of caution and I’d be out of range whenever he started to raise the hammer, much less swing it. Not that I’ve ever fought a giant at all, much less one like that, but it sounds a lot more plausible than a small person military system.

After a day and a half of hard work, none of the Peace Everywhere Array worked any more, and neither did the main stocks of replacement parts. We flew back to Khamrou Psulcho, clutching the our ragged Melismatic Tempests (which aren’t really supposed to last that long or work that hard). I curled up in a deep cave and slept in a deep sleep. Ythac, I believe, coupled with Llredh enthusiastically, and got Arilash so excited that she coupled with every drake but Tultamaan. Or that’s the story I heard the next morning. The cave didn’t smell of very much sex at all.

Lazy Morning (Day 71)

I woke up after a very long time, curled up in a far corner of the cave. I crept out to the stone couch room. There was nobody there but Greshthanu’s catafalque. So I waddled over and had a one-sided conversation about how I had destroyed the weapon that had killed him and would see about the people presently, and I was sorry I hadn’t managed to couple with him while he was alive but I had offered, and how I was taking good care of the hovens when I could, and … That sounds awfully ungracious. I’m pretty sure he couldn’t hear me. I’ll have to ask Osoth for sure.

And Osoth came to mind soon enough. Eight mummies in matching heiroglyph-encrusted vestments marched into the chamber, bearing a vast copper tray upon which rested the corpse of a yearling cow, dusted with tongue-searing mya-mya powder and tomb-natron, though neither one was sufficient to keep off the scent of putrescence that hovered about it. Behind them three skeletal harpers danced a languid pavane and clattered their instruments against their bare rib-bones as they played. The mummies placed their burden in front of me and made many humble obeisances, bowing more deeply than a hoven still encumbered with the hindrances of living flesh and sinew could have done.

“Oh, Osoth left breakfast for me! How sweet of him!” I said, and started to eat it. It wasn’t as good as the rabbit with onion and efforasze he had given me in the Tumult Sands. Osoth is a better dramaturge than chef.

“The very attentive suitor, that is he!” shouted Llredh from outside.

“Oh! Good morning!” I called back. “Who’s around?”

“You, me, and the sleeping of my husband,” he said. “Looting and scattered, the other drakes are these things, in Trest.”

“Well, they should be. Where’s Arilash?”

“Seeking a suitable mountain, this is Arilash. A sentimental lizard is she! The final sepulchre of Greshthanu she will make from it when she finds it. Who better?”

I ripped a bite of rotting muscle off the foreleg. “I suppose she was the closest thing he had to a friend here, or to a wife. I never did too well on either one.”

“Better taste in friends, she is yours! The best among us, he was your friend first.” Llredh reared his head up proudly. “Elsewhere, that is the place you must seek for your own husband!”

I reared my own up, to breathe something or other at him. He laughed. “Too late, for the dragonessly dominance contests with me! This contest, I win her. A mighty victory is my victory! For I did not know I was competing in that contest.”

I didn’t breathe at him, though. He’s a lot bigger than me, and quite a good fighter. Better to tease him back, or try to. “So, you’re the dragoness of the two of you?”

“Drakes, both of us! The detailed investigation, I perform her! Very often!”

“Shameless drakes.”

“Shame, she visits Ythac when he thinks of Rankotherium, or of you. Anger, she visits me when I think of cyoziworms. Vengeance, I do not forget her!”

I wiped the platter clean of pungent spice and drippings with the last scrap of hide. “Have you figured out how to get any worthwhile revenge?”

“Not yet! It has been a busy half-week.”

Ythac called out from deep in the caves, “Llredh? Who are you talking to?”

“Your anti-pervert, your prickle queen, with her I conspire!”

“Oh, hi, Jyothky. One minute.” I heard the rushing of fire breath, the rasping of sand on scales, and soon enough Ythac waddled out. “My wing-muscles hurt like anything. I don’t think I’ve ever flown so much at once. It’s only a day and a half, but I think my body aches by the league flown not the time.”

“Oh, claw it, I’d better check too.” A bit of scrying determined that, yes, my wing-muscles were just as unhappy.

“The warm lake, in her you must both lounge and soak!” said Llredh.

“Where is this warm lake?” I asked.

“On equatorial Mhel, many are there.”

“That’s back on Mhel. Hove doesn’t have a molten heart to make warm lakes, though,” said Ythac. “Are there any here?”

“Such questions, such finding questions, I ask them of my husband!”

Ythac swatted Llredh with his tail. “Someone insisted on giving me a proper hero’s welcome last night and wouldn’t let me go right to sleep! Or newlywed’s welcome, at least.”

“The resistance, the struggle, the objections, the defiancé — all these were far, far away! The acquiescence, the concupiscence, the eagerness, the compliance — all these came in their place!”

“I don’t think Jyothky wants to hear that,” said Ythac. He was right. “Can you make us a hot lake to soak in?”

So Llredh strutted over to a pond and dammed it closed. Ythac and I levitated trying not to move any more than we had to. All of us breathed fire on it, and when it steamed we sloshed in. The drakes looked happy. Some scrying said that my muscles were happy, too, so I suppose it was worthwhile.

Then I went back to the cave and put some slow healing spells on myself, and wrote this, and went back to sleep.

Tarcuna’s Next Job

And not too long after that, I woke up to the sound of Tarcuna grumbling by my head.

“I’m not asleep, I’m awake,” I mumbled in Grand Draconic. I haven’t taught Tarcuna any of that (which is illegal by draconic law), or even much Petty Draconic (which isn’t).

“Spotty? Are you up?”

“More or less,” I said. “I didn’t know you were here. Llredh said nearly everyone had left.”

“No, no, how would I leave?”

“I should hope that Osoth or Nrararn would have taken you with them. I told them to protect you from Llredh.”

She shrugged her good shoulder. “I’m not leaving you, you should know that. Llredh’s not so bad. He was pretty interested in my life story: getting disinherited for the wrong kind of love, getting wormridden, and lots of sexual adventures. I’m ahead of him on all three counts, and never mind that he’s a lot older than me. He had to talk about his toxicology research. I couldn’t one-up him on that.”

“Well, I’m glad he didn’t burn you to ashes or something,” I said.

Tarcuna shrugged. “I suppose I am too. How much longer is our contract for?”

“It’s about over; I’d have to count to be sure.”

“After it’s over, I’d like to go back to Dorday for a little while … Unless you’ve destroyed Dorday.”

“Destroyed? Why would I destroy Dorday? I’ve enjoyed Dorday more than the rest of Hove all together,” I said.

“You and Ythac went on a big rampage all over Trest,” she said. “I don’t know what you might have ruined.”

“Just the Peace Everywhere Array. This wasn’t our revenge for Greshthanu, it was just pulling Trest’s fangs so they couldn’t kill any more of us.”

“I’ve been with you long enough so I understand that. Have you been with me long enough so you understand why it upsets me?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. She stared at me hard. So I had to ask, “Why does it upset you?”

She sat on my forepaw, and looked up at me. “First of all, I hope you know that I am very grateful to you personally, more grateful than I can ever say or do. You saved me from the worm. You worked all night, and that’s much more than a dragon usually does for a … small person, I guess you call us. So to the extent that I have any personal honor, I’m on your side. But that’s the you-as-Spotty side.”

I moved her off my foot and turned into my Spotty-the-hoven shape. She smiled and hugged me. “I didn’t really think I had two sides.”

“Well, there’s the you-as-Joffee-and-I-know-I’m-saying-it-wrong side. When you casually blast fighter jets who are trying to protect Dorday from a mysterious flesh-rending monster. When you rip your friends’ wings up as casually as I’d comb my fur. When you fly across the sky and destroy … do you know what the Peace Everywhere Array meant to Trest?”

“I don’t think Trest made it to kill giant lizard alien invaders which you didn’t know about before a few days ago, so, no, I don’t.” I sat on a rock, and she sat next to me.

“Hove had been full of wars for the last century or so. Well, always, but extra-bad since we’ve had the technology to fight big. Massive wars, nasty wars, bloody terrible wars. This country would find a bit of extnuvia and bring horror to its neighbor. That country had no deposits of horrid minerals, but raised a big army and invented some deadly new weapons and broke its neighbors with big guns and planes. The conquered country had no such power, but they trained a few expert assassins who killed the leaders, or destroyed just ordinary people with bombs or fires. The other country didn’t like tappu — no country likes tappu — and arrested them all and made them work in prison ’til half of them died.”

“Lots of small people worlds are like that. Especially when they get some technology, but most manage some of it even without. We don’t allow such things on worlds we rule.” I said. It did sound a bit odd when I was in small person shape.

“We don’t either. Well, ‘we’ is Tresteans here, not all hovens. Trest is a federation, a lot of old countries who learned to live together and settle our differences politically instead of with guns and doom. When we federated, we became the biggest and most powerful country in the world. We worked pretty hard to impose peace on our neighbors. When Prof. Troubralane invented the twistor beam — he was Trestean, of course — we had a national referendum on what to do. We decided by a very famous 68% majority that we should impose peace on the whole world. So we built the Peace Everywhere Array.

“Nobody else was very happy about it, by the way. Half the rest of the world joined up as the Alliance of Freedom, to oppose us. Freedom meaning ‘freedom to fight each other in the most horrible ways’.”

“Anyways, we stopped a couple of nasty little wars in a hurry, and prevented … dozens I guess. It’s been a lot of work, we’ve had to remove a few really horrible tyrants. Like in Ghemelia. It’s cost us lots of our own blood, and huge amounts of money, and brought us the hatred of a lot of Hove. But we’ve kept the pax Tresteana for nearly two decades. The world’s far and away a better place for it.”

“Lots of your own blood? That sounds like you were fighting wars,” I said. “And Ghemelia must have been one of them — that looked like a war. A nasty one. I was there during the occupation, and it even smelled nasty.”

“No, those are peace actions, not wars. There’s a difference,” she said.

“I’m not sure I see, but go on,” I said.

“The heart of our ability to keep peace across Hove was the Peace Everywhere Array,” she said. She was quiet a moment, twisting her hair in her good hand. Then she added, “And you destroyed it completely yesterday, I hear.”

“I had to! Greshthanu…”

She interrupted me, “I know why you think you had to. I want you to know why it was a terrible thing. ’cause I’m loyal to you, in love with you, remember? I’m loyal enough to tell you when you’ve done something awful.”

I had the best idea I’ve ever had. “Right. OK, your contract with me is over, we’re not renewing it. But I’m giving you another job.”

“I don’t really see that you’ve got the right to tell me what to do,” she said, smelling irritated. Which is silly of her — of course she’s one of my small people. But it was a good enough idea that I didn’t think I needed to tell her that.

“I want you to go to Trest and explain what dragons are like. They need someone who understands us so they don’t do stupid things like shoot at us and make us go destroy them. Also you should tell us important things too, preferably before we burn the city to ashes or whatever. But we’re just here to get married to each other, we’ll mostly leave hovens alone if you leave us alone. If you can explain that to the consuls, we’ll be a lot less annoyed and a lot fewer hovens will die.

She nodded and didn’t say anything.

“And you know us somewhat, I don’t think any other hovens know anything about us really,” I said.

She nodded and didn’t say anything some more.

“Besides, it’s a better job than being a wormridden whore,” I said.

“A lot less popular,” she said.

“What? You’ll be helping people. A lot.”

“I’ll look like a collaborator of the destroying alien monsters. That’s not going to make many friends,” she said. “I’d rather stay with you.”

“If anyone gives you trouble for it, I will kill them,” I said.

She looked annoyed. “That is a perfect example of the problem.”

Well, I thought it was a good idea, anyways.

Coda: On Owning Small People

There are about two opinions about owning small people, with variations.

Downcrushing Opinion

For Downcrushers, your small people are pretty much part of your territory or other possessions. You get them the same ways: conquest, purchase, trade, gift, whatever. You can do whatever you like to them: work them to death, kill them when they annoy you, trade them to other dragons, whatever’s convenient.

So you might expect them to be terribly evil greedy monsters who delight in destruction. But Rankotherium — for the most traditional Downcrusher I know, by how he talks at least — isn’t like that at all. He conquered Pdernuz and a goodly chunk of Mhel by breath and claw. Then he gave a lot of his new territory away to some other dragons, like my parents (who hadn’t done all that much) and Osoth’s (who did even less). He sat on Pdernuz very hard for a while, until his mhelvul learned not to fight him. And then he proclaimed a bunch of laws — and got the mhelvul to design some of them, in fact — and, pretty much, follows them himself.

Not because it’s right for him to do that — he considers it morally neutral — but because it’s convenient. He’s got a nice comfortable peaceful domain full of productive, compliant mhelvul. Also generally happy mhelvul, but he officially doesn’t care about that.

Churdle the farmer probably feels about the same about his cattle.

Uplifting Opinion

For Uplifters, your small people are the ones you’re responsible for. Usually that means the ones in your territory, or that you conquer, or buy, or trade, or whatever — the same things that Downcrushers say. I took responsibility for Tarcuna when I healed her, in Uplifter terms.

That’s a serious point of disagreement between the two sides. If my mother had been there when the gymnasium collapsed, and she’d healed Verimet, she’d have taken responsibility for her. (I was a dragonet at the time, so it wouldn’t have counted much.) Which would have annoyed Rankotherium considerably, since Verimet is certainly one of his small people too. So they probably would have had a fight, over what price Uruunma would pay Rankotherium — for a broken schoolgirl? Or a future high-caste matron?

But the real disagreement is over what you’re supposed to do to your small people. Theoretically Downcrushers will give any sort of orders or impose any sort of punishments, whatever serves the dragon’s purpose. Theoretically Uplifters will mostly do things for the good of the small people.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Like, Rankotherium’s small people have better doctors than my parents — he pays well for doctors; we can’t afford them. And better traditional schools, because Pdernuz has always been a very educated city.

But, well, my parents’ small people have better libraries. Rankotherium doesn’t let his learn much about their history, or much about science. It would not be convenient or peaceful if they made a few paingods and challenged him, say. We’re not so worried about that, or mother at least thinks that the mhelvul deserve to know what they used to do to each other, so, libraries.

And sometimes it’s easy to tell the difference. Rankotherium probably wouldn’t have healed Tarcuna, in my place. Unless it were actually convenient or fun or something (which it wasn’t).

I’m an Uplifter, I guess. Ythac certainly is — anything to oppose Rankotherium. Llredh is a Downcrusher through and through, so that “marriage” will be like my parents. I’m not exactly sure about the rest of us.

The Judgment

Of course, most Downcrushers (well, Rankotherium at least) pay attention to the welfare of their small people. And most Uplifters (Uruunma at least) don’t fuss too much about having slaves or servants as convenient, and don’t fret that the slaves don’t get much benefit beyond basic sustenance and livelihood.

I just thought of a very strange experiment. When I get back home, I’ll ask some of my parents’ small people which kind of dragon they prefer.

Ambassador Tarcuna (Day 72)

“I’ve thought your idea over, Spotty,” said Tarcuna the next morning over breakfast. She took a bite of breath-grilled chicken, grimaced, and said, “It’s a terrible idea, I don’t want to do it at all, I don’t want to be away from you. But I can’t think of anything better to do. There’s stuff I could do, like being a public friend more, but now that I’ve got my own motivations back I’d really rather be picky about who I share my body with. There’s stuff I’d like to do, like go back to school to get my degree and then go to work in the Peace Everywhere Array’s research department. I don’t know which half of that is the more impossible. If I try to do anything at all decent, it’ll surely get out that I spent a while with you. If I try to hide it, it’s sure to go terribly when I get found out. I might as well take advantage of it. Help you some, and help Trest and Hove, too.”

“The Jyothky apology, Tarcuna is demanding her!” said Llredh.

“For ruining my life? No, not really. Bopo did that. Jyothky’s put me into a terrible position, yes, but it’s hopeless love terrible, a loving-the-wrong-way terrible. Which is so much better than worm-terrible there are simply no words.”

Llredh roared his agreement to that, and for the next half-hour I could not slip a word or wing between them, with all their agreements on how bad cyoziworms are, and how inconvenient but inescapable loving-the-wrong-way is.

So Tarcuna and I flew to Perstra — that’s the capitol of Trest — after breakfast. A long time after breakfast. Arilash is off doing I-don’t-want-to-know-who-what. So I asked Ythac for his best travel spell, which turns out to be the Dozenwing Dozentail. My parents wouldn’t let me learn the Dozenwing Dozentail. They were worried that I wouldn’t notice how much it was bashing me, and I’d fall out of the sky and die. So I made Ythac teach it to me.

It isthe most annoying spell I know. If you do something that irritates it, it slams your ribs, very hard. Things that annoy it include: slowing down; turning left; going into a cloud; flying over a well; complaining about it. I set up some subsidiary spells to warn me whenever my ribs got broken. Which happened three dozen times on the one flight. Sometime I am going to cast the Dozenwing Dozentail and make it read this diary entry, just to annoy it more.

Perstra, then. City of Roses. It’s a designed city, less than a gross of years old, except that it’s really very old and got rebuilt recently after it was mostly burned down in a war a gross of years ago. All the main streets used to have rose gardens down the middle, and lots of them still do. There are dozens of monuments, and dozens of fountains. Every eighth block used to be a park, and lots of them still are.

It’s rather pretty from overhead, so much so that one is tempted to slow down and get one’s ribs broken. Since it is one’s destination anyways, one can break the clawraped Dozenwing Dozentail with a furious swat of one’s vô. Even if one’s vô is still crunchy from getting blasted by the Peace Everywhere Array. One may also unwittingly break one’s quite innocent and helpful the Esrret-Sky-Painted, and attract considerable attention while one interrogates one’s ex-whore about where to go and who to bully upon.

The right place to land was, of course, the office of the Trestean Diplomatic Brigade. Neither Tarcuna nor I had any idea where it was, beyond “somewhere in the main administrative district.” I didn’t much feel like pestering Ythac about it, since he had been so helpful with that travel spell, that travel spell, that insufficiently-chewed-upon travel spell … after I thought about that a bit, I wrote to him and asked him.

The headquarters of the Diplomatic Brigade is a big square building with a big square courtyard with lots of rose bushes and diplomats in it and a statue of two hovens shaking hands in the center. I scattered the diplomats with a roar, and squashed many rose bushes (but no diplomats) when I landed.

A handful of guard with whimpery little ray guns tried to hold me off. I roared at them, “Bring me the Secretary of Diplomacy, and nobody will die!” They seemed glad of an option that involved (a) leaving the garden, and (b) not dying. Naturally the Secretary of Diplomacy was unavailable, being off at an extremely urgent meeting with the consuls or something. So they brought me the Expendable Undersecretary of Diplomacy. That’s not her actual title, but it’s pretty obvious.

“Welcome to Perstra. I am Shebra Narthium, assistant to Secretary Hemmo. I trust that you come in peace and will observe the traditional diplomatic customs?” she said.

“No. I’m not even going to observe the traditions of my people. I’m here to give you the best hoven expert on dragons, so that you don’t do anything more stupid than you’ve already done and make us kill even more of you than we already have to,” I said. I probably could have been more diplomatic myself. I was quite annoyed though. Shebra Narthium might not be one of Greshthanu’s murderers, but she was a senior ally of theirs. And having my ribs broken so often to help her didn’t improve my mood any, even if I couldn’t feel them.

“I’m not sure I understand,” she said. “Could you explain further?”

“Tarcuna, the woman tied to my back, has been travelling with me for a while. She knows what we’re on Hove for, has a basic understanding of our etiquette and the ways for small people — that’s you! — to deal with us. And she knows a lot about how we think and even what we can do. You need an expert on dragons. So I’m bringing you one. Now, get her off my back and give her a high salary. I want to go back to my fiancés and have lots of sex.” Half true.

It took four sturdy diplomats to get poor one-handed Tarcuna get untied and off my back. (Note to self: get proper harness, with carabiners. Having Llredh tie knots, and tugging them tight with a dragon’s strength, is not a good substitute for technology.) While they were working, we conducted a combination job interview and intimidation session.

“Do we have any particular reason to trust Tarcuna not to be acting in your interests?”, Shebra asked.

I glared at her. “Of course she’s acting in my interests. I want to stop having to waste time killing Tresteans, and get back to the vacation that I came to Hove for in the first place. Now, I will burn all your cities to ashes if I need to, but I can think of lots of better ways to spend a week, so I’d rather not.”

“Spotty!” Tarcuna shouted. “That’s not what I told you to say!”

“Oh, right. She’s a loyal Trestean citizen. She didn’t want to cooperate with us, or even stay with us, after we started fighting Trest,” I said.

“We will certainly listen to her story with considerable interest,” said Shebra.

“Also you’d better pay her. A lot,” I proclaimed.

She said something that had words like “brigade policies” and “proper remuneration” and “official channels” and “standard procedures” in it. I cast the Word-Fox, but the spell didn’t understand it either.

So I used more diplomacy. “I’ll come back in a few days to make sure that you’re treating her properly. If you’re not, I’ll destroy some of the Diplomacy Brigade buildings. It’ll end up being more expensive for you than if you paid her up front.”

“Spotty! You’re not helping!”

Shebra glared at me. “We will take this under advisement. Normally we do not allow foreign nationals to dictate Brigade employment or salaries. Especially not hostile foreign nationals.”

“Normally you don’t allow hostile foreign nationals to destroy the Peace Everywhere Array either,” I snapped. Bickering with a small person in public is undignified, but I was rather irritated.

“Spotty! How am I supposed to make any kind of peace when everything you say is past or future war?” shouted Tarcuna.

“You’re not supposed to make peace! You’re supposed to explain dragons to them!” I told her.

“So that we stop getting into unwanted fights with you!”

“Well, you don’t not get into unwanted fights with me by yelling at me in public!” I hissed.

“I am grateful for when you saved me. But it sometimes seems as if everything you’ve done since then is purposefully trying to ruin the life you gave back to me,” Tarcuna snapped. She turned to Shebra. “I will be glad of any opportunity you give me to serve my country. If you prefer not to use my services, I’ll find something else to do. If you decide I should be tried for prostitution or whatever, I’ll be safer in prison than with the dragons.”

“I do not give you permission to imprison her!” I roared. All the hovens covered their ears with their hands.

“It’s not your decision!” Tarcuna shouted back. “It’s an internal Trestean thing. Now go away and stop trying to make me utterly unwelcome in my own home!”

I reared up, over the statue of two hovens shaking hands, and breathed a very long tight needle of fire onto it. The stone melted, and a tail-length of soil and rock under it. The hovens screamed and ran. Then I leapt into the air, levitated because the courtyard was too tight for actually flying, and … cast that clawraped the Dozenwing Dozentail on myself too early. Naturally getting out of the city and back to Ythac and Llredh involved a great many things that offended it, and I had to heal my ribs a dozen more times on the way back than on the way there..

Today was thoroughly horrible, and it was pretty much all my fault. I don’t have so many friends that I should be doing that to one of them. Even if she’d rather, say, be at home with her own people than be stranded in a cave with a murderous short-tempered alien monster who abandons her half the time anyways.

Coda: Travel Spells

Travel spells are mostly grownup spells. I don’t think that’s an inherent part of the magic. The Dozenwing Dozentail might stunt your growth because it injures you constantly, so that one has a good reason for being for grownups. The Scratch-the-Sky isn’t any harder on your body than any other simple magic (and I had learned it as a child but was forbidden to use it except in emergencies.) It’s harder on anyone else who’s flying around though, so parents don’t like when their children cast it. Or, in fact, when anyone else casts it. I don’t think that the Melismatic Tempest has any problems like that — unless you count the occasional minor cut on a fragment of music — but it’s a hard spell. I might be able to cast it, if I felt like begging my rival to teach it to me and losing still more fiancée points, but I couldn’t do it very well.

I don’t feel like writing a coda about travel magic.

Coda: Perstra

Perstra is a big city. Before the unification of Trest it was the capital of one of the little countries, and if I had Tarcuna around I could ask her which one, and I don’t feel like writing a coda about Persta either.

Or about anything else.

Diplomacy (Day 80)

The Wind to Diplomacy

There really was only choice of who to make negotiate with Trest. Csirnis didn’t object.

There was a lot more choice over whether to negotiate with Trest. Several of us, including me, simply wanted to fly around and incinerate or squash the people we’re supposed to kill, and not fuss. Ythac and Csirnis, who are surely the most decent of us, argued that if we’re going to be insisting that the hovens follow the usual laws, they have to, first of all, know what the laws are, and, second of all, follow them in the traditional way. The first is only fair and practical (though in draconic law it is nowise required), and nobody argued with it too much. The second part was the sticky part. It’s going to take a lot longer and a lot more work to do it right.

“But this is Greshthanu’s death-price. Remember that he refused to mate with Jyothky because she hadn’t been treating some hovens properly,” said Ythac. (I’d rather not remember that part too much, but everyone does.) “So let’s do this properly.”

There was no arguing with that. Though there was a bit of Ythac-wing-biting for how he had phrased it.

Then we had to persuade the hovens that we were creatures who should be negotiated with. Or even that we were creatures who could be negotiated with. Ze Cheya was some help with that, since Csirnis and I had been quite civil there. Of course, Ze Cheya was the other injured party in the negotiations. Several of the leading countries of the Alliance of Freedom, viz. the alliance against Trest, offered their services as mediators and assured everyone that of course they would be completely impartial in negotiations concerning Trest. Trest instantly took exception to the very concept, and several days of bickering ensued. Finally they settled on having the first talks in Strobland, a small island country that never dared either join or oppose the Alliance of Freedom.

I was doing my best to disport myself with my surviving fiancés, and generally enjoy life. If you care, I only disported myself that way once, with Osoth and a goodly amount of Dammanese vegetable oil, and he chattered constantly during it so I wasn’t so bored, so it was almost as pleasant as just chattering with him. (Except for the envious part that he got to enjoy it and I didn’t, as usual.) And he said it felt pretty good and didn’t hurt much, which is all I’m hoping for.

More significantly, Arilash trounced me several times. I wouldn’t flatter myself to thinking that I’m any better an opponent than before. But we are down three males out of seven, and neither of us wants Tultamaan. So first place female gets Csirnis, and second place gets Osoth, Nrararn, or, if she’s somehow Arilash, probably both. And the only reason why we have to spend the next twelve years working on this is that it’s undignified not to.

Anyways, finally all of us moved to Strobland yesterday. Today Csirnis is going to tell Trest’s ambassador about the right way to propitiate us.

Strobland is a tall craggy island country. It’s very wet. The valleys that aren’t underwater are quite fertile, so it’s a very prosperous tall craggy island country in an agricultural sort of way. Technologically it’s rather backwards: there are only seventy-two miles of paved roads and a grand of cars in the whole place. Lots of big slow tractors with very well-maintained brakes though. Politically it’s consular, sort of — that’s the political system of Trest too. It’s not exactly consular, because there are only three consuls and twelve states rather than seven and sixty-three. Even the most devoutly consular Tresteans admit that there aren’t sixty-three proper cities in the whole of Strobland, so there’s no point to a full-sized consular government. There are barely twelve. There’s also a King and Queen of Strobland, a pair of generally beloved nearly-figureheads who override the consuls about once every three duodecades when the consuls are about to do something that offends the dignity and spirit of Strobland, and are otherwise used for potentially-sacrificial purposes like negotiating with dragons.

There aren’t any buildings built for dragons either. There’s a havocs stadium though, so we’re using that for the meetings. The havocs fans are upset that they can’t watch their favorite sport in the height of the season. We’re sleeping in the royal barns. And eating lots of fish, mostly caught by Stroblanders; that’s most of what they do all day, except for the farmers. The fish are upset too, but not for very long.

Opening Remarks

This all sounded very scripted. There wasn’t really a script, except a little bit on our side, but everyone followed it anyways.

Scene: A big tent taking up half of the Daistrob Havocs Stadium. The tent is gaily striped in red and orange, except for occasional spots of mold. It was last used for the wedding of King Darmund and Queen Jingis a while ago, and stuffed in an attic in case they had a big anniversary party or something.

Dramatis Personae:

Dramatic Person Nationality / Side Notes
Csirnis Dragons; Justice Beautiful and useful! Well, more beautiful than useful today.
Hemmo Trest Short, fat, grey-furred hoven wearing very precise and modern clothing. Secretary of the Diplomatic Brigade.
Zakuna Ze Cheya Short, fat, dim blue hoven wearing elaborate traditional Zeanese robes and a phoenix headdress larger than his whole head. The headdress had a small oil lamp in it, so that the phoenix’s head was burning.
Queen Jingis Strobland Tall, slender, elderly, dim-blue-turning-grey hoven wearing modern clothing that looked like last duodecade’s fashion. (Her tunic had several structural flaws, I looked with tenasense, and a few patches.)

Plus dozens of functionaries I was never introduced to, and eight other representatives of important countries who didn’t say anything worth mentioning, so I won’t mention anymore.

Jingis:(A brief speech welcoming everyone to Strobland, urging everyone to keep the best interests of Hove as a whole in mind and quickly come to a generally-satisfactory resolution of the unpleasantries.)

Hoven ensemble:(Polite insincere applause.)

Draconic ensemble:(No applause. The tent wasn’t high enough. (No, really. If we sat on our haunches so we could clap with forepaws, we’d rip through the roof and probably sully the memory of the king and queen’s wedding or something. (And clapping your forepaws when your belly is on the ground looks awkward.)))

Zakuna:(A devastatingly polite and indirect speech about the recent unpleasantries. If you didn’t know the background, you’d think that the Tresteans had stepped on his foot or something, rather than killing grands of people and wrecking half his capital city.)

Ensemble:(Quiet attention)

Hemmo:(A forceful and accurate presentation of the injuries to Trest and its allies and interests, from Drupe-ek-Kavash through the Peace Everywhere Array.)

Ensemble:(Quiet attention)

Ythac:[privately]«Jyothky, Scourge of Trest!»

Me:«Ah, the things I do for love!»

Csirnis:(A calm and precise explanation of our side of the story, based on the twin principles of (1) we only destroy hovens when they’re in our way, and (2) in nearly all cases the response has been traditional and appropriate to the situation.)

Ensemble:(Quiet attention)

Hemmo:[In a whisper to a nameless functionary]“They’re sticking to that cyoziworm nonsense. Unfortunate.”

Jingis:(Concluding words thanking everyone for peaceful, considerate, and careful participation.)

And that was all of the peaceful, considerate, or careful participation.

Demands

Hemmo:“As the country which has suffered far and away the greatest injury, we present our demands. (1) that the extradimensional monsters return home and neither them nor any member of their species ever come to Hove again. (2) that before they depart they grant our scientists a full study of their capabilities and limitations, with an eye towards (2.a) our developing weapons against any potential future incursions in violation of (1), and (2.b) the adoption of their capabilities into Trestean technology. (3) Reparations from the Alliance of Freedom totalling ten times the cost of the damage to Trest, since this damage was taken in defending all Hove including the Alliance of Freedom from the alien monsters. (4) A complete waiver of all present and future claims of injury from Ze Cheya.”

Hoven Ensemble:(general nodding)

Draconic Ensemble:(general hissing) Because (1) would be personally awkward for us, and I can’t imagine any way of telling all the other dragons, much less getting them to do it. (2.a) We don’t want them to have those weapons, and (2.b) even if the hovens could use our magic we wouldn’t want them to do so. (3) at least is not our business, but (4) is offensive.

Zakuna:“As the country which has suffered terrible injuries for no more provocation than admitting to our country visitors whom we could scarcely exclude — whom the full military power of Trest was unable to keep out of Trest — we humbly request the consideration of the Empire of Trest for the rebuilding of our destroyed city, plus twelvefold more as punative damages, plus an official apology and agreement that the Peace Everywhere Array not be rebuilt and that Trest repudiate further violence against Ze Cheya.”

Hoven Ensemble:“That’s meek peaceful little Ze Cheya making that sort of demand?”

Of course it wasn’t just Ze Cheya making that sort of demand. Csirnis had discussed the amount and the repudiation with Ze Cheya and various Alliance of Freedom countries in advance. Some parts of Csirnis’ demands came from them, too.

Csirnis:“We will ask only the traditional quantity punishment for an attack on nine dragons and the slaying of one. First, that all hovens involved in the attack, and their families and their closest friends, be delivered to us to take their deaths. Second, that their entire personal fortunes — in this case, including the year’s military budget of the Trestean Army — be given, half to us, half to Ze Cheya. Third, that Trest never again build a weapon capable of injuring a dragon. Fourth, that Trest withdraw its military into its own borders and never again protrude it forth. Fifth, that Trest cease to fly airplanes, though by Jyothky’s particular dispensation they are permitted zeppelins. Sixth, that Trest not object when we hunt hovens ridden by cyoziworms in its territory and do what we will to them.”

Hoven Ensemble:What??? Mostly at the first item, which I thought would be the least troublesome one. The last one got some snickering, since cyoziworms are generally considered to be legendary. The first one was the real problem.

Hemmo:“Madam Queen, this request is inhoven, is barbaric! Archconsul Shuvanne’s life, and the lives of so much of our military, cannot be made part of the settlement! I demand that the beast exclude itself from the discussions!” There was general agreement. Apparently hovens think that leaders shouldn’t be personally responsible for the atrocities they order committed. This makes no sense to me whatever.

Jingis:“I have no authority to order any such thing. Csirnis, I beg that you withdraw the first part of your demands, in order for the negotiations to continue.”

Csirnis:“I cannot withdraw it. It is simple justice. Additionally it has been at the heart of relations between small people and dragons for all time.”

Hemmo:We have not been a part of any such relations! You are newly come to Hove! And on Hove, the life of a national leader is sacrosanct!”

Csirnis:“Uncle Holder of Ghemelia is no longer alive to dispute that. I daresay that Osoth could track down his spectre and have him dispute it posthumously.”

Hemmo:“Irrelevant! Uncle Holder had been deposed before he was put on trial for his many crimes!”

Csirnis:“Then depose Shuvanne too. You may use whatever legal fictions you like to fulfil your obligations.”

Hemmo:“Impossible! Further, killing family and friends is an atrocity, a barbarism!”

Csirnis:“A preventive measure only. It discourages a great many vengeful small people from foolish assaults.”

Zakuna:“Csirnis, Csirnis, come, do not insist on this. It is not the way of gentleness.”

Csirnis:“It is the draconic law, Zakuna. I can but uphold it, and apply it mercifully. Or, if Trest refuses to obey it, apply it fiercely.”

And that pretty much ruined the day’s negotiations, right there. The hovens all tried to persuade Csirnis to give up on that. Of course Csirnis couldn’t, and wouldn’t. He even got a bit testy about it, which is unusual for Csirnis. By the end of the day, the dialog was more like:

Csirnis:“I can’t alter that demand. I shan’t alter that demand. If you like we can take it off the table. If you do, we shall need to pursue it privately. You may expect considerable collateral damage. I would rather a dozen, a gross, of uninvolved hovens die than a single involved one survive.”

Hoven ensemble:“No, no, that’s awful, that’s uncivilized, that’s heinous, it’s unhoven!”

Csirnis:“It is no such thing. Trest killed more uninvolved hovens per unit dragon not long ago, in Ze Cheya.”

Hoven ensemble:“But that was different!”

Csirnis:“Yes, different. Both Zeanese and dragon who were killed were wholly innocent, and, indeed, devoted to paths of gentleness and peace.” Which is a bit of an exaggeration about Greshthanu, but not completely false; he was very Uplifty at least.

By the end of the day’s negotiations, we had pretty much alienated all the hovens, even Ze Cheya.

Worse Diplomacy (Day 81)

The next day in the big red and orange tent didn’t do any better. Except for one thing, and that was seeing Tarcuna again.

I was sleeping in a barn. Specifically one of the barns of the Royal Stables, so it was quite a nice barn as long as I was careful not to knock against the sides. Though it smelled so much of recent horses that I was quite hungry. It required a good deal of determination to go to sleep rather than sneaking off for some night hunting, which would have surely made poor Csirnis’ diplomacy just that much harder.

Early in the morning, at least an hour before the day’s negotiations were supposed to start, Tarcuna and some Trestean soldiers drove up to the barn in a very nice wooden carriage. I had my head under my wing (see “determination” above). Tarcuna pounded on the door and shouted, “Spotty, Spotty? Are you awake?”

“I’m not asleep, I’m awake,” I said, although it wasn’t true, and didn’t rhyme in Trestean either.

“Do you have time to talk?”

I woke up some more. “Oh! Tarcuna! I didn’t know you were here!” I peered down at her. “Are we still friends?”

She looked up fearlessly, which I had to feel guilty about. “I hope so. I’m still in love with you anyhow. Could we talk a bit, though?”

“Of course! Come in! I think there’s something to sit on. No food though. Who are your companions?”

She introduced them, but I mostly don’t care about their names. “They’re my guards, and Markosh here is my … they call him my mentor.”

“That sounds evasive to me. What do you call him?” I asked.

“My tender, maybe. My handler. They’re not at all sure what to make of me,” said Tarcuna. She looked into the barn, which was mostly full of me, and sat on a bale of hay in the barnyard instead. The soldiers sat, two on the hay, the other two on the ground. Markosh bowed and said something diplomatical and therefore meaningless.

“I hope they have given you a very high salary and made you comfortable and honored in all ways?” I asked, glaring at Markosh.

“It takes a while. They’ve been OK so far. I’m sort of consulting for them on spec. If I do a good job here and if they think they can trust me afterwards, they’ll do that,” said Tarcuna.

“Tarcuna, you know you can’t lie to a dragon,” I said.

Tarcuna glared at Markosh. “Told you.”

Markosh nodded gravely. “We had to know.”

“I have to know too! Tarcuna, you must tell me what you are being evasive about!” I roared.

“Oh, some forceful interrogation techniques. Not a big deal. Some of my johns were harsher to me, when I was a whore,” said Tarcuna.

“But you were getting paid then!” I said. My tail boomed against the side of the barn. I didn’t want to break the barn down — I’d probably have to sleep in a cave if I did that, and Strobland’s caves are awfully wet and moldy. So I shrank by three-quarters (linear), and waddled out to the barnyard. The diplomat and soldiers boggled a bit at the display of very ordinary magic. Which was silly of them, I’d been that size last night so I could go to the theatre for a chanting-out. (I didn’t want to take hoven shape — none of the other dragons did, and I wanted to show my solidarity with them. And we want to be full-sized and impressive for the actual negotiations.)

“Well, I expect I’ll get paid again soon. It wasn’t so bad really. Truth drugs — they’re not really truth drugs, they just lower my inhibitions and make me dizzy. I barely have any inhibitions anyways, and they usually let me sit down, so that wasn’t any trouble to speak of. They also kept me awake a couple days in a row, and shouted at me a lot. You’ve done worse to me and I was, am, grateful,” said Tarcuna.

I tasted her scent, and thought about her words. “You’re angry at them but don’t want me to kill them, is that what you mean?”

“Exactly. I’d rather they make it up to me with money and honor and such. And I’d rather earn it myself than have you blast it out of them. It’d be nice to have some pride again,” said Tarcuna.

“Well, next time you’re telling me something, don’t be so evasive. I hate having to think. I’m the laziest dragon on Hove, especially before breakfast.”

So we chatted about her circumstances a bit more. She’s constantly guarded and monitored. She grinned a big grin at that. “I asked for privacy, and they didn’t want to give it to me. They thought you’d sneak in and give me secret orders, or something.”

“Because it’s so easy for a barn-sized lizard to sneak into a small room without anyone noticing,” I said.

“Well, you got around Dorday pretty quietly for a few days,” said Tarcuna. “Anyways, if they don’t don’t want me to have any privacy … a whore doesn’t really expect a lot of privacy in her professional life anyways.” The soldiers’ fur went all turbulent and their scent a bit sour, which means they were embarrassed. “I know how to put on quite a flashy show of auto-eroticism. Good for flustering the guards, and for feeling sweeter after being kept awake for two days.”

I had to laugh at that. “From that, did they give you any privacy?”

“No, just female guards.”

“I can’t imagine that stopping you,” I said.

“It inspired my artistry!”

“I guess they didn’t know you like girls better than boys?”

“The Diplomacy Brigade knew. I don’t think the guards figured it out ’til you just said it,” said Tarcuna. Her guards did seem to be melting a bit into puddles of embarrassment.

“Well, I’m glad you’ve been taking good care of yourself,” I said. “Was that what you wanted to talk about?”

“I’m afraid not,” she said. “I wanted to know how to get Csirnis to stop insisting on killing so many of us. We can’t agree to any deal including Shuvanne’s life, much less all the people you want.”

I blinked at her. “I suppose you could do something worse than death to them, if you’d rather. A cyoziworm maybe. You and Llredh could probably persuade us that that’s a sufficient punishment.”

Tarcuna shuddered. “We simply can’t have a treaty with any such thing in it. For one thing, it’s not how we do things anymore, on Hove. It’s barbarous.”

“It’s barbarous not to punish the hoven who killed many grands of hovens in Ze Cheya?”

“He’s got Immunity of Office. It’s not a crime if it’s while he’s a consul and he’s just setting national policy. His job is to set national policy. Sometimes innocent people get hurt by national policy, and that’s too bad, and we’re willing to pay money by way of apology for that. But not for the national policy as a whole.”

“That sounds barbarous to me,” I said, because it did.

“And even if he was responsible, his family and friends aren’t. He’s got a two-year-old son, Spotty! The baby probably can’t even talk, much less have any influence over his father.”

“All the more reason why Shuvanne shouldn’t be challenging dragons,” I said. “He’s endangering his innocent family.”

“No, you’re endangering his innocent family.”

“Well, after he killed so many hoven children, I don’t really see the problem with killing his,” I said. “Though technically that’s not why we’re insisting on killing his family. Anyways, we’re not punishing the baby, we’re punishing Shuvanne by killing his baby.”

“That’s simply horrible,” Tarcuna said. “What if we insisted that your parents should be killed for you destroying the Peace Everywhere Array?”

“I imagine you would quickly learn how mighty a pair of fully-grown adults at the height of their powers are, compared to a gawky half-trained one-third-grown girl like me,” I said, rather proudly.

“That’s a good practical argument, but totally shit as a moral argument,” Tarcuna said.

I thought about that a while. “I suppose so.”

She looked triumphant. “So you agree that your demand is immoral. Could you at least put it on the table for negotiation?”

“Well, Csirnis is the negotiator. You could probably make the same point with him — he’s a far more decent and ethical person than I am. But practically I don’t think it’ll work. It’s a very old and very practical law, and I wouldn’t feel at all good about violating it. Especially so publicly,” I said.

“I didn’t really think so. Oh, and as long as we’re being practical, the other reason we can’t do it is, Shuvanne can veto the treaty. That’s part of his job as a consul too,” said Tarcuna.

“This whole diplomacy seems pretty futile, then. I think we probably should negotiate a war treaty instead of a peace treaty,” I said.

“What’s a war treaty?” asked Tarcuna.

“An agreement about what we’re going to destroy if we can, but of course in this case we can.”

“What good is that?” asked Tarcuna.

“It’s mostly to be nice to you. We might, oh, say that we’re going to destroy Perstra in a week, as part of it. Then you have twelve days to …”

“Ten. Weeks are ten days.”

“If it’s our war, it’s our week. Don’t complain, you get more time that way. You have twelve days to get all the hovens out of Perstra who want to leave, or to put up whatever defenses you want, or if you’re sensible to take your military far away and keep it quiet ’til we’re done.”

“I still don’t see what good that does for you.”

“Depends on the agreement! If you agree that you’ll take your military out of the way, then we can burn the city conveniently, and if that’s what we want to do, we’ll be happy. And your soldiers at least won’t be dead, so it’s a good treaty for you too.”

“Do small people ever break those treaties? Like saying they’ll keep their armies away, but reinforcing them instead?”

I had to think about that. “Oh, I’m sure it happens. Usually they’re treaties between dragons … we fight a lot more than you do, and for more reasons, so it’s important to keep the fights under control. But we can make war treaties with small people too. If you break the treaty, we will too, and that usually works worse for the small people. At the very least, you’d lose the soldiers who went up against us.”

“Or you might lose a dragon or two,” said one of the soldiers. I think Masha was her name.

“Possibly! You’d have to kill us all though, if that happens, or we’ll ruin the entire country. Oh! You can put something into the war treaty about that — that’s important! If you’re planning to fight us, demand permission to fight us. That way we don’t have to kill you and your family if you shoot us, Masha. That’s good for us, less work to do, and good for you too since we won’t kill your family and we might not even kill you.”

“Don’t be so cocky! We killed one of you already!” said Tarcuna.

I licked her head, messily. “I’m still sorry I broke your ability to feel fear, but you are so delightful without it.”

Tarcuna tried to clean her head with some hay. “That is horrible! Can we negotiate a Licking Treaty? Only appealing hoven girls can lick me, and only between the legs?”

Everyone blushed, or hid their eyes behind their wings, as appropriate. Except Markosh, whose profession demands unflappability.

Then it was time for the morning’s negotiations, but you already know that they went so badly it’s not worth talking about them.

Spy Games

Since Strobland is so craggy, and since the talks were so tedious and futile, some of us went for hunting and tail-chasing and tsheriaf around Mt. Monjior. (Scores if you care: Arilash caught one mountain goat, one Ythac, and 166 points. Ythac caught nothing, one Arilash, one Jyothky, and 223 points. I caught a giant climbing spider, nobody, and 208 points.) Then we brought our food and our non-captives, but not our tsheriaf points, back to the royal stable grounds. The hovens couldn’t cook them very fast, and didn’t think that the climbing spider was edible at all. So we made them give us a lot of spicy mustard and cheese sauce. Ythac delicately rotted the meat with darkness breath, and I delicately scorched it with fire, and we shared it and complained about this and that, mostly in Ghemelian. Ghemelian is good for complaining in.

Then Ythac cast a language spell, and wrote to Arilash and me: «Trestean spies are listening to us now. Do you care?»

«I imagine the Tresteans know by now that I liked to copulate with the dragon they killed, and that I miss him,» wrote Arilash.

«And they can count the open-air theatres in Strobland as easily as I can. I was at the only one last night, listening to big hairy brawny hovens chanting epic poetry at each other. It’s not entertainment, it’s a sporting contest.» I re-complained.

«Well, I care. Follow my lead, OK?» wrote Ythac.

Out loud, in Ghemelian, he said, “I just noticed something that would be funny if it weren’t dangerous. You know the Trestean word for ‘ferret’ and the Ghemelian word for ‘sleuth’? If you say them back to back, it comes out as my True Name.”

“Well, you’d better watch out for, um, Trestean military police in Ghemel who are looking for illegal mustelids, then, hadn’t you?” I said.

“Don’t laugh! It’s a real problem! If someone says that to me, I lose all my powers!” Which is silly. There’s no such thing as a True Name. All our powers come from our astral bits, and sound doesn’t even carry to the astral plane. Ythac had been reading Trestean mysticism and magical fiction, which has True Names.

“Really, how likely are you to run into someone who mixes Trestean and Ghemelian like that?” snorted Arilash.

I said the words to myself in my head as I crunched a spider leg in cheese sauce. «Ythac? Why’d you pick Petty Draconic for ‘I’m so doomed.’ as your supposed True Name? You’re not that doomed, are you?»

«That depends on whether my father calms down before he finds someone to cast the Triangular Cyclonette so he can come here and kill me, when he finds out about me and Llredh. But that’s not the joke — I’m not going to be yelling my True Name at me and expecting me to roll over and die.»

«You are so vicious! I know I can’t marry you, but can I twine you a few more times?» wrote Arilash.

«No, but you’re welcome in my territory anytime, once I have a territory,» he wrote back.

“Well, you’re still safer than poor Csirnis. His True Name is pronounced just like ‘Crompies King’. There might even be a fish sandwich store called that in Dorday,” I said. “He could be destroyed at any time by a careless hoven tourist!”

«That doesn’t even fit Grand Draconic phonetics,» wrote Ythac.

«No, but it sounds almost like ‘Give me fermented ham’ in Mhel. Best I could come up with,» I said, and took the last of the goat.

Arilash had been musing and looking clever. “Tultamaan’s True Name is ‘Square Running Bowl’ in Zeanese.” «Or ‘Whiny Aphid’ in Mhel!»

So we carefully doomed ourselves and all of our friends, or worked out some feeble bilingual puns, your choice, for the benefit of the spies.

“So we could all be wiped out by a few people who know the right words, is what you’re saying?” said Arilash.

“Exactly!”

“I wonder if Csirnis realizes how vulnerable we actually are?” I mused for the benefit of the spies.

“Well, he’d better not act like it! The appearance of strength in negotiating is everything. Besides, it’s not as though anyone is going to stumble on those words.”

“As long as Csirnis avoids hungry tourists. Anyone fancy another fly around Mt. Monjior before the afternoon session starts?”

The flight was nice. The afternoon session was very bickery. Except that Arilash and Ythac and I kept writing bilingual puns at each other, and giggling out loud in the middle of Zakuna’s elegy for the fallen of Ze Cheya or something equally inappropriate.

Coda

Dragon Stated True Name Other Meaning Note
Jyothky Catastrophe Agenda Late Breakfast Huge Ythac was in good form with this one!
Arilash Bright Wint-Winter Too Much Sex Ythac was not in such good form with this one. He had to stutter one word.
Llredh Slipper of an Old Agent Destroy Me Now! I’m proud of this.
Osoth Dung of the Harpy Eagle Narcotic Miasma Probably would have been better the other way around.
Nrararn Later, Later, Later Neither Surprised Using the same word in three different languages was cute. The translation, not so much.

Too Much Diplomacy (Days 82 through 87)

Day Diplomacy Dragons
82 A general agreement to table the discussion of killing Shuvanne. Osoth and Llredh got into a terrible fight about … something. I think it might have been cheese sauce. Or someone’s honor. Maybe one of them splashed the other with cheese sauce? In any case, Osoth got his forewings terribly crunched, and Ythac and I had to bodily pull Llredh off Osoth before he did the hindwings too.
83 Blinding success! An agreement that the Trestean army’s military budget not be entirely paid as reparations, but that they would bring their army within their own borders. This makes some sense because they need to pay for moving lots of stuff all around. Arilash and Csirnis put on a rather spectacular amatory display. Nobody said a word to me. I was ashamed anyways, and whined at Tarcuna for a long time afterwards. She was sympathetic enough, because she had to be I suppose. I miss Xolgrohim; he’s easier to whine at.
84 Csirnis conceded that Trest can fly civilian airships, just not military ones. Trest agreed that they will pay reparations to Ze Cheya. Everyone snarled at Csirnis for conceding points. He snarled back that that’s what negotiation is about. Everyone snarled at Csirnis more for starting with what is lawful, if he’s going to give a bunch of it away.
85 Trest agreed to repudiate further violence against Ze Cheya. Unless Ze Cheya continues to ally themselves with Trest’s enemies. Csirnis and Zakuna allowed Trest to get away with fourfold punative damages, instead of the original twelvefold. Everyone snarled more at Csirnis. Arilash declaimed at length about how ashamed she is for copulating with such a one as Csirnis two days ago. Csirnis flew off to Mt. Monjior to “meditate”.
86 Csirnis informed the hovens that our further demands are no longer negotiable. The hoven ambassadors were rather ticked! They argued; Csirnis held firm. They expostulated; Csirnis held firm. They bickered; Csirnis held firm. They remonstrated; Csirnis held firm. They even quibbled; Csirnis prods them with his hukuchô and they stoped quibbling and start dribbling. Day’s negotiations ended early. Arilash and I both rewarded Csirnis. Stroblanders don’t cook with vegetable oil though. Mountain goat butter — not clarified — works just fine, though I smelled rather nasty and goaty about the genitalia despite washing in the ocean for some while. I must find some soap next time. Afterwards, Arilash utterly demolished me in a dominance fight, five touches to one. And her second touch wrecked my left eye. She healed it before I managed to, but that was her third touch. I should stop fighting Caramelles with her, and switch to just classical Dominances.

Which brings us to this morning. Csirnis walked glidingly into the tent — how does he do that? — and said to Hemmo, “Today, you must accede to the rest of our conditions. If you do not, we will no longer negotiate a peace treaty. Instead, we will start to negotiate a war treaty.”

So we spent the next half-hour explaining what a war treaty is to the Stroblanders and the Zeanese and such. The Tresteans already knew. They are listening to Tarcuna.

Hemmo tried to avoid Csirnis’ fork. “I believe that progress is possible on your sixth point. Our medical establishment can, we believe, develop a test for the presence of cyoziworms — if provided with a few samples — and, armed with that test, we could establish a legal procedure so that our doctors and police could provide you with the so-called ‘wormridden’… yark!

The “yark!” was probably due to Csirnis breathing a circle of fire around him, without touching him. So elegantly he made every dragoness’s heart sing. Probably Ythac’s too, though Ythac better not touch Csirnis. “Centered circle! Eighteen points!” warbled Arilash, as if this were a tsheriaf game.

“I imagine that such a medical test and legal procedure will be helpful when we resume negotiations for the peace treaty. This will happen after the upcoming war. It is now time for violence, or, more properly, planning for violence.”

Various hovens argued. Csirnis was having none of it. The diplomacy adjourned for the day.

War Treaty (Day 88)

Back in that tent:

“This will be an advisory sort of war,” said Csirnis. “We will destroy Perstra by fire. After that, you should come back to Strobland and accept our revised demands.”

The hovens’ fur generally went muddy and turbulent, and they stammered and stank of fear, save for one. “Hey, Csirnis. Aren’t you supposed to give us some time to, oh, evacuate the city?” shouted Tarcuna.

“Oh, absolutely, Tarcuna! That’s one important detail for the war treaty. Also which direction we shall approach the city from, who shall do it, what important sites you wish to preserve, and what your army will be doing in that time,” said Csirnis. “Shall we begin?”

A somewhat shaken Hemmo reluctantly acquiesced.

Day Diplomacy Dragons
88 The attack will commence one week (12 days) from the agreement on the war treaty.

Fine, fine. Get on with it.

All the drakes were ferocious with dominance contests. Including Llredh who beat up Nrararn (five to three) and Osoth (five to four). Even though there’s really no point to him having dominance contests anymore, is there? Actually, Arilash beat me again, but by a rather less humiliating than last time five to three.

89 Maybe Churry City instead of Perstra?

Whatever.

Everyone was utterly pissy. Even Nrararn and Osoth had a dominance contest (Osoth won, five to four). And I got into a fight with Tultamaan over The Usual Problem which has been going on for this Whole Mating Flight that I will Occasionally Mate With Other Males but never quite Get Around To Him. He really isn’t a very good fighter. Which is his own fault really. A nice satisfying close-up fight where I clawed and clawed and bit, and he cursed his paralyzed forelegs and bit, and I won five to four.

90 They want infantry not to be killed, even if they’re firing at us. Much argument. No decision. Everyone gangs up on Csirnis and chews his wings to rags.

Csirnis, wings gleaming from being newly regrown, glided into that clawraped tent. “At the end of the day, the war treaty will take effect. If you wish to persuade us of anything, do so now.”

Henno looked very disappointed. I guess he had been trying to delay us as long as he could, perhaps the rest of his life or something. Well, a day or two more and it would have been … Llredh and Arilash aren’t the most patient dragons that you’ve ever met. I’m sure one of them would have squashed him. Three or four days, and I would have done.

The War Treaty proper

  1. “We” is six of us, excluding Arilash and Llredh who aren’t fighting in the war because no dangersense. “They” are the inhabitants of Trest.
  2. Fourteen days from today, we’ll destroy the military base at Darpuldo. We are confronting the Trestean army in this regard: that means that (1) they can fight back, and, if they do, we’re obligated to duodecimate and rout the army (which destroying the military base counts as, so no problem), and (2) they can kill us and we’re not obligated to take any particular degree of revenge. (We’re allowed, of course, and we probably would if one of us gets killed.)
  3. Fifteen days from today, we’ll destroy the military base at Fort Tasse Man, under the same terms.
  4. Sixteen days from today, we’ll destroy the military base at Bastruzo, under the same terms.
  5. Seventeen days from today, we will have a big battle with the Trestean army at the Quenjo Wastes. We are challenging the Trestean army in this regard: that means that (1) they can attack us and we’re not obligated to take any particular form of reprisal, and (2) they can kill us and we’re not obligated to any particular revenge.
  6. Eighteen days from today, we’ll destroy Churry City. Just the city and the military base. Farmhouses will be specifically spared if the residents do not attack dragons. (Churdle and his boss should be fine.) We’ll be confronting anyhoven who chooses to resist.
  7. Arilash and Llredh will not be participating in any of these battles.
  8. The devastations pursuant to this treaty will take the place of the destruction of the families and friends of Shuvanne and his associates in other treaty discussions. (We figure that, for a major world leader, accidentally losing an old, important city will be a humiliation comparable to the death of his family. Also, when it comes down to it, none of us wants to kill the two-year-old, and Nrararn and Arilash outright refused to do it.)

There was lots of bickering on our side. Why are we having the big battle as a challenge rather than a confrontation? (Answer: it doesn’t make any difference really — it’s just a little less restrictive on us, and we’re going to more than duodecimate them anyways. (Objection: it’s more cowardly! (Answer: Shut up!))) And, of course, why does does Jyothky get to do this? She already got to destroy the Peace Everywhere Array! (Answer: That wasn’t a proper rampage, that was a chore. (Elaboration: A chore and a half!) (Objection: But I want to destroy a city toooo! (Answer: It’s a big city, there’s plenty for everyone. And Jyothky didn’t destroy a city, just a bunch of little camps. (Objection: a lot of camps! (Answer: Shut up!)))))

Oh, and Arilash and Llredh are out because they don’t have any dangersense. The Tresteans have lots more big twistor projectors which could potentially kill a dragon. These are smaller ones, shooting a few miles instead of all the way across the world. But they’d hurt, and a badly-timed shot or two would kill. We persuaded them Arilash and Llredh to stay out of the way. Arilash looked a bit disappointed, but told the drakes to loot a lot for her. Llredh — that most aggressive of dragons — looked unconcerned and said he’d find something else to do. Marriage, or fake marriage, seems to rather change a drake.

In The News (Day 92)

For old times’ sake, I abducted Tarcuna to Stajrnëblottë, on the other side of Strobland. It was an easy sort of abduction:

“Hey, Tarcuna! Want to come with me to Butterboard’s?” Butterboard’s being a famous sandwich restaurant in Stajrnëblottë — so famous that its fame has spread far and wide, and that it is mentioned in nearly all three tourist guidebooks about Strobland.

“Sure! What’s Butterboard’s?” said Tarcuna, who had, evidently, only read the other guidebook. If that.

“Sandwich restaurant!”

“I should have expected some such. Can I bring my guards and mentor?”

“Sure, but I’m not carrying them. Or paying for them,” I said. I’ll carry my friends, but not their oppressors.

“I’d better not, then,” she said. “Or maybe we can meet you there?”

So I grabbed her in my forepaws, and jumped into the air, and flew off to Butterboard’s.

“Spotty, you’re going to get me in trouble. More trouble, I mean,” she said, but she was laughing.

So I shouted down to her oppressors, “Meet us at Butterboard’s!” and let them work out the logistics.

Stajrnëblottë is a small, unimpressive city, devoted mainly to fishing, logging, and herding. The buildings are heavy wooden things, mostly not painted except for one red circle on the front of each one that represents having paid the house-tax. Butterboard’s is in one of the buildings, somewhere, but I had to land, shrink to hoven-sized, and have Tarcuna ask a native to find it. They were a bit surprised and a bit scared to be serving a dragon, but if their queen could do it, they could too.

Inside, it’s all very ornate and kitschy, with lots of small wooden or ivory carved hovens peeking at you from lots of shelves. There’s a big table in the middle of the room, where five Great Chefs of Making Sandwiches stand at attention, surrounded by a vast array of breads, meats, sausages, cheeses, pates, mayonnaises, butters, mustards, and spreads. There are a few terrified-looking vegetables off at one end of the table, too. I don’t know what the vegetables are so terrified of. Nobody ordered any vegetables while I was there.

The menu is about half a tail long, listing more than fifteen dozen choices, all with fanciful names. “The Happy Little Gnome” is roast cow and spiced butter and goose-liver pate on dark pumpernickle. “Top of the Mountain” is four kinds of sausage and plain butter on seeded white bread. Why? I have no idea.

You’re supposed to order three assorted sandwiches (they’re small) for a small meal, up to ten sandwiches for a Gigantic Hunger. “Hm … it’s not dinnertime yet, but I’m rather hungry,” said Tarcuna. “I’ll order the Normal Dinner, of five. You’re paying, right? I don’t have any money.”

“Sure, if they take thurnies.” I looked at the long, long menu and drooled.

“Spotty? You may not order one of everything here. You just may not.”

“Pity.” So I ordered two Gigantic Hungers, one their top ten sandwiches of pickled fish and the other their top ten of sausage, and watched with interest as the chefs sawed thin slices of bread with huge knives, and spread and sliced and assembled.

“Actually, I promised you some money and forgot to give it to you.” I took out the greater part of the money I had taken from the paymaster at Churry City.

“No thanks, Spotty. It’ll look like a bribe. That would be real trouble for me.”

“Well, I owe you your tip at least, don’t I?”

“Well, that’s up to you. Usually it’s for good service…”

“And flying into battle on my back has to count on good service,” I said. “So, the full thirty thousand.”

“Well, fine. Could you hold on to it for me?” She obviously didn’t want to be seen taking money from me, so I dropped the point.

Then the sandwiches came. The sandwiches were beautiful (but open-faced! I wasn’t expecting that), long rows of fanciful spirally towers of meats and cheeses and whatnots on thin slices of bread, served on planks. They tasted good, too. Butterboard’s reputation is entirely deserved, and the next time I am in Stajrnëblottë I shall be sure to go back to Butterboard’s, it’s that good. (The next time I am in Strobland and don’t have some other reason to go to Stajrnëblottë, I won’t make a special trip. It’s not that good.)

After Tarcuna had finished three and two-halves of her sandwiches, she said, “I see a copy of the Magic Horn of Perstra by the door. Want to see what they’re saying about us?”

“I’ve always enjoyed having you read the paper while I’m eating, Tarcuna.”

So she fumbled with it, one-handed. “Here we are. It’s yesterday’s, but that’s fine.”

Our greatest enemies remain at large in Strobland, the Black Curse and his conspecifics!

“The Black Curse is you, I’m sorry to say,” noted Tarcuna.

“It doesn’t sound that bad,” I said.

“It’s a variation on ‘Curset’. The anti-sun, the material manifestation of the evil principle. His anus, to be specific. It is not an overly flattering name. I’m sorry, Spotty. To keep reading,”

They threaten to attack our fair home! Churry City, the heart of Muld, is at peril! Henno has failed to stop or deter them — incompetant? Or traitorous? Shuvanne must find a better approach towards dealing with these savage beasts whom he has stirred up! When they leave Strobland and fly towards Trest, it is only our brave and noble military that will stop them! That will not be accomplished without great shedding of blood! Our soldiers have already had to endure far too much in Ghemelia and in the Peace Everywhere Array!

“Does Trest want Shuvanne to surrender himself and his family? We might accept that. Though the drakes are eager to show off in a real battle.”

“I imagine that Churry City would prefer that. Unless they think the army can protect them. Anyways, there’s more.”

Meanwhile, the barely-intelligent brutes fly and fight and feed and fornicate in the mountains of Strobland! The perfect opportunity to strike them with the Peace Everywhere Array without unnecessary casualties! … But, somehow, Shuvanne has already lost the Peace Everywhere Array!

“They don’t sound pleased anywhere. Who do they hate more, us or Shuvanne?” I asked.

“They’ve had more practice hating Shuvanne. Not the majority, but lots of people. He’s very aggressive. Some people think that’s a bad idea… I used to, when I care about politics.”

I nibbled at a slightly monumental pyramid of cheeses and pickled fish and sweet butter on a whisper of brown bread. “D’you think Tresteans would take it as a kindness if we killed him, instead of Churry City?”

“No. You’re alien monsters. Even people who want him dead wouldn’t be happy if you killed him. Really, you killing hovens is just going to make the surviving hovens more upset. No matter how you do it,” said Tarcuna.

“Including making you more upset?”

She slurped hot tea and stared at me over the cup. “Definitely including making me more upset. I wish you’d stop killing people.”

“I don’t particularly enjoy it,” I said, and it sounded petulant to my own ears. “You’ve seen me kill, oh, muggers and that first warplane and then the other warplanes in Port-of-Zom, and then the Peace Everywhere Array. And not kill Shebra, despite how annoying she was. Do I seem to like killing hovens?”

“No, but you keep doing it.”

“Well. All the drakes are telling me that I’ve had my turn demolishing Tresteans already. I can hardly promise never to kill any more Tresteans, or other hovens, but I can sit out of the next war and nobody’s going to complain.”

Tarcuna’s eyes widened. “Would you?”

“I suppose so. Everyone would be happier if I did.”

“I don’t suppose you could get the drakes to sit out too?”

“There wouldn’t be much of a war if they did!”

“I’d like that,” said Tarcuna. “Think you can?”

“No. They’re furious and haven’t tasted blood yet. I’m furious too, but I’ve done somewhat about it,” I said.

“Didn’t you hate Greshthanu?”

“We didn’t get along very well. I might have married him though. He was the second-best drake, after Llredh and Ythac were out. Now I’ll probably be stuck with Osoth or Nrararn.”

“You’d marry him even though you don’t get along?”

“Why would I want an inferior mate?”

She started trying to talk me out of it — to explain to me why it’s important to love your mate. Which is all very silly. Everyone figures out how to love their mate eventually. Except maybe for very inflexible dragons like Rankotherium. And nobody is in love when they get married. Except maybe for perverts like Ythac and Llredh.

Anyways, I pointed out that I wasn’t going to marry Greshthanu anymore anyways, and that was her country’s fault, and the next thing we needed to do was to make sure that they stopped trying to kill any more of my fiancés.

“So why not reject that war treaty, and not fight?” she asked.

“They’re drakes. They’re not going to not fight. Even wimpy ones like Osoth and Nrararn and Tultamaan are going to fight, they just don’t enjoy it as much as Llredh.”

“Well … I hope the army can drive them off, then. I don’t see any way out of this that makes both of us happy, though,” said Tarcuna.

“No, probably not. Sorry about ruining your country. I hope we don’t have to wreck it more past this.”

Aftermath

Nobody minded moving me to the “not participating” section of the treaty. So that was easy.

Tarcuna got credit for … well, it was a pretty minor diplomatic victory, but it was the first thing that the Trestean diplomats could call a victory. Getting one dragon fewer in the enemy forces is pretty big. Bonus points for most veteran dragon with the most experience destroying technology military things (which is me! Until day 104, when it will be the drakes.) Except when there are still five left.

Really, it shouldn’t take more than one dragon to crush the army, should it?

Coda

Well, it shouldn’t take more than one, that’s axiomatic.

Why, then, did Ythac and Arilash and Llredh call me back to Port-of-Zom to help them fight? I can see a few ways to make that agree with the axiom.

  1. They were being friendly to me. This is pretty likely — Ythac knew how offended I was by his behavior, and didn’t want me storming off alone.
  2. Arilash and Llredh aren’t really whole dragons. They don’t have dangersense, and when you’re fighting an army and there are alarums and explosions going on all over, dangersense is very useful. (I’m not a whole dragon either — I might not notice that I need to heal myself, and die by mistake. At least I’ll notice before I get hurt.)
  3. They weren’t fighting the army per se. Llredh certainly wasn’t. He was raging, he was trying to burn up the city or something. Ythac and Arilash didn’t really want that either. Nobody was actually fighting the army for real.
  4. They, we, weren’t fighting the army the right way. If you want to destroy an army, you fight vicious and sneaky. I speak from experience here! I destroyed the Peace Everywhere Array like that. We’ve got several distinct advantages over technology armies: healing magic to endure, apotropaic magic to defend, illusion magic to hide, travel magic to speed, big versatile breath weapons. These work better when you fly across the continent and burn up bits of the army that aren’t expecting it. A big pitched battle like we’re going to have is a showpiece. It looks impressive (I hope!) but it’s not the efficient way to demolish an army.
  5. We’re all pretty young dragons, just adolescents. Maybe the axiom is about grownups.
  6. Maybe the axiom could be wrong?

Etiquette of Xolgrohim (Day 100)

“What are you and your fiancés doing in Ghemelia now?” Tarcuna asked me at breakfast. This was some effort on her part, since the Stroblanders were roasting oxen for us in a little mountainside park a half-hour’s drive from that useless tent.

“Nothing, I don’t think. We haven’t been back to Ghemelia since, oh, it must be nearly two weeks. Unless someone’s gone back to dig up a bit of a hoard from the desert or something, I suppose,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“This,” she said, and handed me a little scroll of paper.

Which got annoyed squeaks from her guards. “That’s a Trestean state secret, level 2!”

“And how am I supposed to get anything else out of her if she doesn’t know what I’m talking about? You know she’s involved somehow.” snapped Tarcuna. I glared at the guards a bit, and they glared back. Markosh gestured to them, and they shut up.

Report on Death Falcon Mission 148J-S-GHEMEL.
Objective: Rescue senior ambassadorial and/or military staff from Mystery Zone around Ghemel; return with intelligence about nature of Mystery Zone.

“What’s a Mystery Zone?” I asked.

“We don’t know. That’s why we call it a Mystery Zone,” said Tarcuna.

“Well, what do you know about it?”

“It’s an approximate circle eighteen miles in radius, centered loosely on the former Presidential Palace in Ghemel. That covers Ghemel city proper, most of its suburbs, and chunks of farmland and such. Also dozens of Trestean military bases, the airport, and stuff. Two days ago we lost all contact with everyone in it. We — Trestean goverment and military I mean — should have been getting thousands of reports from it constantly, and, all of a sudden, nothing,” said Tarcuna.

“Nearly nothing,” said Markosh. “Some very strange final reports that Tarcuna hasn’t seen.”

“And we should have lots of messages from Ghemelians too — phone calls to other cities, businessmen and travellers and such, all kinds of things. All of that stopped at the same time. Now, we can see the city, with the Peace Everywhere Array cameras, and it doesn’t look any different. There’s plenty of traffic inside the city, plenty of people walking around, no mass casualties. No violence, which is pretty surprising — they usually get tens of explosions and fires a day, and that’s all stopped too.”

“Well, we certainly wouldn’t permit explosions and fires if we ruled the city, but eight of us are in Strobland, I’ve seen us all today, and the ninth is dead,” I said. “What are the final reports you got?”

“Two categories. Some said things like ‘Station 14-A under presumed chemical attack, details unknown. Symptoms increasingly intense pain and auditory hallucinations. All personnel affected.’ The others were more like ‘Can’t stand it any more. Must surrender. Tell my wife and children I love them.'” said Markosh.

Tarcuna’s fur went utterly flat, and she started shaking and smelling of rage. I folded a wing around her, and tried to be comforting. “It’s not cyoziworms.”

“You know what it is?” asked Markosh.

“I think so. Let me finish reading this, I’ll see if that sounds like him,” I said.

Personnel: Five Darkness Axe helicopters, each with pilot, copilot, and 4-8 specialists. Group included two enhanced agents.
Plan: Enter Mystery Zone along attached flight path. Stop at Station 1 and Trestean Embassy. Return along attached flight path.

The attached flight path wasn’t attached, but it didn’t seem important. I read the next quarter of the report.

Precautions: Helicopters equipped with anti-electronics gear; personnel wearing gas masks. Monitoring by telemetry with one or two correspondants giving running commentary in each copter. Results: Immediately on entering Mystery Zone, all correspondants mentioned burning sensations on the neck and shoulders. Several mentioned hearing voices saying, “The pain will increase until you surrender to Murghal Nhestravvath.” No such voices heard by telemetry. All reported rapid increase of pain. Nonverbal expressions of agony in audio telemetry. Copters attempted to turn around and flee. All ceased radio contact before they could reach edge of Mystery Zone.
Guardsman Monos on copter 4 started to report, saying “We have surrendered and” Follows only protracted screaming for over an hour. A voice tentatively believed to be Murghal’s says, “You were told to disobey all Trestean orders. You dared to defy us and continue to report. You will now die in pain.” Screaming intensifies for two minutes, then ends in gurgling. Presumed-Murghal speaks directly into microphone: “The Trestean army in Ghemel has surrendered and is now part of our loyal guard. They will stay and serve us forever. If you send anyone else in, we will conquer them just as easily. Do not think to meddle with us and our supreme new ally.” Then a pistol shot ends telemetry.

That was plenty to confirm the obvious. “OK, what you’ve got there sounds like Xolgrohim. He’s a paingod from Mhel. My parents killed him a while back. Osoth put his spirit in a bottle and was going to compel him to find treasure, but we got a bit distracted and didn’t get around to it before we came to Hove. Xolgrohim was pretty friendly with Murghal — oh, I don’t know if you know, we picked the best cave in the the Khamrou Vorescs, and so did Murghal, so he was there before us and we enslaved him. Anyways, it sounds like, after we left, the two of them made an alliance and snatched Ghemel back from you.”

Markosh frowned. “So, Murghal and this paingod …”

“Xolgrohim.”

“Zolgroan” (Three tries later) “Xolgrohim, they’re your servants? Is this another front in your war against Trest?”

“No, nothing like that. Murghal is an escaped slave, we should kill him but probably won’t bother because we didn’t want him in the first place. Xolgrohim was pretty friendly to me, good with romantic advice for an undead paingod, so I’m not quite sure what I should do about him. I think he’s just working for Murghal though. It was either that or sit in a cave for duodecades, since the rest of us abandoned him.”

“So you deny all responsibility for the Mystery Zone in Ghemel?” said Markosh.

“Oh, we’re sort of responsible. We should have cleaned up our dead god. We would have done, but we got distracted by you killing my fiancé. It’s a case of littering that got out of hand.”

“What can we do about the situation?” he asked.

“I have no idea. Hovens don’t seem to have the least bit of resistance to magic, so you can’t get close to him. Of course you can’t have any long-range ray guns anymore. We could get rid of him, but you certainly shouldn’t expect any favors from us. So you can either come up with a tremendously clever bit of technology, or stay out of Xolgrohim’s way.”

“Do you plan to take any action?” he snapped.

“Definitely. I am going to comfort Tarcuna a lot. She seems a bit shaken.” Which was an understatement. Tarcuna was curled up under my wing, bristling and hissing. I suppose that having been wormridden once leaves one a bit distressed by the idea of other, even more malevolant forms of overriding the will. I hissed useful promises to her — I wouldn’t let any paingods take over her (real promise) or even Trest (vague intention). I know how to kill them because my parents did it a lot (not so confident here — Xolgrohim knows a lot more about dragons than he did then, and we’re a lot weaker than our parents, and he’s already dead. Plus side though, we’ve got a necromancer.) He can’t get me because I can’t feel. (No clue — nobody’s tried pain magic on me. It would be nice if it could work.) Even the greatest paingods couldn’t subdue dragons with their power. (Probably true. Cterion and Rankotherium talked about brushing pain-spells off with a flick of the vô. Of course, Xolgrohim probably has other powers than pain.)

None of that helped. Tarcuna wasn’t scared, she was disgusted. Xolgrohim seemed like a magical super-cyoziworm to her, and she couldn’t endure the thought of so many people wormridden, or dead-god-ridden, or whatever it is.

Tarcuna uncoiled after a while, but smelled utterly devastated the rest of the day and didn’t want to leave my side. (She’s asleep in my barn, while I’m writing this. I hope she’s better tomorrow morning.) Markosh wanted lots more details. I didn’t want to distress her any more, so I sent Markosh to Osoth.

It’s Osoth’s problem anyways. He brought the silly god-lich with us, he can clean up after himself. I heard him giving Markosh ancient Dorfindalian riddles though, so I don’t think he was very helpful.

Anyways, this is an extra mess which we simply did not need. We’re here to get married. Not to fight undead gods (or import them), punish empires, hunt down mind-controlling worms, or any such distractions.

Etiquette of Tultamaan (Day 101)

Tultamaan was doing his best to immerse both Arilash and me in burbling corrosive guilt at lunchtime today. “You must remember the only reason I continue to remain in this Distinctly Unpleasant and Dangerous Situation!”

“The chance to stick your droopy little hemipenises in Jyothky’s abrasive little vulva?” said Arilash.

“Hey! Mine’s as big as yours!” I protested. (Haven’t measured. Can’t argue with “abrasive”.)

“I should not have expected any clearer reasoning from a Dragoness whose Main Intellectual Asset is behind her claspers. The situation is Wholly Untenable. Not to put too fine a point on it, the hovens have Snuffed the Life from A Very Large and Powerful Dragon. I see no reason to allow them to Repeat the Procedure, probably with Variations. I should not like to see small people destroy even Ythac or Nrararn, much less Myself.”

“So you’re going to scorch and claw them ’til they realize that they shouldn’t,” I said.

“I note with a Bored Displeasure your Feeble Personal Attack, Jyothky,” said Tultamaan. “I can, as you well know, neither scorch nor claw. I can freeze and bite, which will serve just as well in nearly any circumstances and better in many.”

“And are you really brave enough to get within breath-range of a hoven, much less biting-range? You seem unduly terrified of them. I suspect your best attack will be to pee on them from far, far above. Out of fear, without meaning to.” said Arilash.

“Your Attempt at Humor confounds me. Which is it more: more Feeble, or more Juvenile?” mused Tultamaan philosophically.

“Juvenile. You’re as skittish as a young dragonet. I needed to put in terms you’d understand,” said Arilash.

“There is indeed somewhat of a Gap in Degree of Understanding between us. You have figured that Important Fact out at least. In other respects you continue your traditions of being Quite Largely Inaccurate, with occasional excursions to the realms of Wholly Wrong and Massively Mistaken,” said Tultamaan.

“You’re trying to seduce her, aren’t you, Tultamaan?” I said.

“I am trying to remind her, and you, that I am a Valued and Important Participant in this punative expedition, and, indeed, on this mating flight. Your appreciation of this important fact has been Slightly Muted. It has been Somewhat Less Than Monumental. One would be hard-pressed to accuse it of Extravagance. Unlike your appreciation for, shall we say, the dragons whose Hideously Careless Tourism and Floundering Flopping at Diplomacy have resulted in stirring up an actual war.”

“Oh! You’re trying to seduce me, too, with your marrow-sweet words and your extravagantly romantic poetry,” I said.

“I do not see any Need or even Hope for affection under the circumstances. I simply point out that I am being Quite Responsible on this mating flight. Additionally I provide eleven-twelfths of the Sensible Advice, among other underappreciated Valuable Services. However, neither of you is taking any Particular Degree of Responsibility back towards me.”

Arilash hissed. “Right. Do something impressively brave punishing Trest, and I’ll grit my teeth and couple with you. Once more. Then I’ll wash the yuck out of my genitalia with cattle semen or something else that’s a whole lot braver and more companionable than you.”

“An imposingly Generous and Wide-Hearted, to say nothing of Wide-Claspered, Offer. Considering that the offerer has several times mentioned how much she misses the variety of drakes available in Fohhona. And that she is so bored of the paucity of drakes here that she should start on the dragonesses, and that the very hovens around us are beginning to look appealing.”

I glared at Arilash for (a) capitulating, and (b) talking about lusting after me. She shrugged. I glared at Tultamaan. “Your sensible advice hasn’t been very helpful. You missed the Peace Everywhere Array, the cyoziworms, and even taking good care of Xolgrohim so he didn’t get loose and start fouling the world up.”

“Your Unclarity of Mind is brilliantly illustrated by your current Lack of Focus upon the Matter at Hand, Jyothky. There is a Purpose in this discussion. This Purpose should not be confused with producing Further Uninspiring and Unfunny Insults. You can do that upon your own time, and I Daresay that you will have a Great Deal of your own time in which to do it.”

I breathed a cloud of winter fog at him. Contemptuously, since he’s got ice breath himself. “What are you getting at, Tultamaan? It sounds like you’re trying to imprison us in a dimension of pure despair.”

“He’s already imprisoned us in a conversation of pure whininess,” snapped Arilash.

“Right then. Arilash, Jyothky, I hereby Resign from this exercise in botchery, degeneracy, and broad-spectrum incompetence that you are somehow pleased to call a Mating Flight. I have been on three, I have heard stories of many, and this is far and away the Worst that could ever be Imagined. I do not require an Intellectual or Spiritual Peer as my wife, but my recent experience with the two of you has shown me how far my Standards could be Endurably Diminished. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a life as a Miserable and Humiliated Batchelor is far, far preferable to spending another Day in the presence of such Arrogant and Stupid dragonesses as yourselves. Or even Dying Gloriously in the Sky of Battle because of Your Utter Worthlessness at Diplomacy, though that Would Be Much Better than marrying either of you.”

“Oh, that’s a bit redundant. We had pretty much written you out of the mating flight weeks ago,” said Arilash.

“Yet again, you fail to capture the Point. It eludes you. It evades you. It escapes you, despite that it makes every effort for you to catch it. It sails across your left flank, waving a Gigantic Purple Flag for your Attention, while you muse brainlessly on the details of your last Fornication with a Supposedly Braver but Certainly Cerebrally Inferior drake and manage to miss it despite staring right at it,” said Tultamaan.

“Not really. There’s really no way I can insult you a twelfth as much as you deserve before you go, but I do feel obligated to try. Back to Mhel, then?” said Arilash.

“Mhel will Do Quite Adequately,” said Tultamaan. “On Mhel the small people do not Shoot At One with gigantic purple ray guns.”

Arilash opened the gate of ice and centuries and death for him, and called up the cyclone of fire and niobium and poetry. He inspected the gate for several moments. “Alarmingly, it does, indeed, lead to Mhel. I had expected some Petty bit of Childish Reprisal for Imagined Insults from you. Such as sending me to Plurdat, where doubtless no dragon will bother to follow for a grand of years,” he said.

Arilash shrugged. “Sure, I’ll send you to Plurdat, if you can endure another eleven seconds of us to my next heartbeat, and if it’ll make you feel more persecuted and thus better.” (Which I thought was the best insult of the day.)

“I suppose I’ll need to tell the other drakes,” I said. “I don’t know that they’d notice the lack of whining, or missing a nominal fifth of their military power, for some weeks, otherwise.”

“Those are your Heartfelt Farewells?” he said. “I can Improve Upon Them Considerably. Indeed, I thank you without irony for your Best Efforts in my regards, and with irony for the rest of them. It has been an Experience involving Considerable Self-Discovery.”

“Please be gone yet,” I muttered.

And he flew off into the Triangular Cyclonette, and was gone yet, finally. Back to Mhel, where he has a dozen years to tell everyone how horrible we are and how hopeless the mating flight is.

Arilash and I looked at each other, and shrugged. “Well, he lasted longer than I expected, anyways. You shouldn’t have encouraged him so, Jyothky.”

“I didn’t!”

“I think you did. By starting to mate with the drakes after he yelled at you.”

So we had a quick little impromptu angry Caramelle, which she won but only by one touch.

None of the remaining drakes looked particularly surprised when I told them. Nor even very encouraged.

I’m not particularly encouraged either. We’re down to three drakes for two dragonesses, which is awfully skimpy choices. Not that I would have chosen Tultamaan over, say, destroying my claspers with many many lightning bolts, but it’ll sound much more impressive to have a bigger choice.

So … Osoth? Nrararn? Both, by their odd arrangement? I’m sure Arilash will come in first and pick Csirnis.

Or maybe we’ll lose all the drakes and need to get some more, or something. I don’t really think I’ll get off with less humiliation than Tultamaan will, at this point. Though more married. Eventually.

To someone I admire and/or like, even. That’s good enough for a bottom-of-the-barrel dragoness like me, right?

Quenjo Wastes (Day 103)

The seven of us slept last night in the ruins of Bastruzo Military Base. We got up very early. Virtuet was well behind the Godaxle. The drakes were mostly getting ready for the battle — their first real battle. Arilash and I prepared them suitably: she gave everyone the Melismatic Tempest, I gave them the Hoplonton. Osoth and Nrararn conjured a lot, cooperating to make a truly ominous cloud that radiated so much magic that I’m sure that even the hovens could tell how dangerous it was. Ythac amused himself by picking out the real weapons scattered among the fakes and marking them with invisible illusionary fireworks for later destruction — the hoven military had filled the Wastes with logs casually disguised as artillery.

Csirnis simply looked graceful and friendly. “Do the rest of you have plans for the day?”

“I’m going to find a likely-looking mountain and carve it into a memorial for Greshthanu,” said Arilash. “And I better not have to do that again for any of you.”

“Except Jyothky, of course,” said Llredh.

“No, not except Jyothky. If any of you die, I’m going to get Osoth to call you back so I can scold you,” said Arilash.

“What if it’s Osoth?” I asked.

“I’m sure Osoth can raise himself from the grave somehow,” she said. “Enough of that. What are you doing, Llredh?”

“Some little errand or other, she will be today’s business,” said Llredh.

“I’m just going to watch the battle and grumble about getting talked out of it,” I said. “Hey, Ythac, where’s the best place to watch from?”

Ythac cast the Draft of Direction. “From the Perspeckle Movie Theatre, in Perspeckle, six miles from edge of the Quenjo Wastes. That’s odd.”

“I’ll go look.”

Movie Theatre of Operations

An hour before dawn, I flew to Perspeckle. The movie theatre was surrounded by military vehicles and military hovens and military nervousness. The top of the building was all spiky with antennae. I shrank to pretty small — the size of three hovens or so — and landed in front of the theatre, and then let the three hovens guarding the theatre’s door see me. “Hello! Ythac said this was the best place to watch the battle.”

They pointed their guns and hatchets at me. “What the fuck? Didn’t you promise not to be here? Don’t you have some kind of treaty?”

“Not me! I’m just a tourist or something. I’m not trying to fight today.” I looked at the guns and hatchets. “But you can attack me if you like.”

They didn’t like. “Tourists aren’t allowed here, this building is off limits,” said the guard. Another guard was talking into some fancy technology phone about how there was a situation at the front door of the command center.

“I’m going to go in in three minutes, one way or another. You can figure out the etiquette, if it’ll make you happier,” I explained.

I spent a few more minutes than that talking them out of bringing up artillery (“You’ll need it in the Wastes. And if you use it here, either you’ll wreck your command post, or I will, and everyhoven will be upset or dead about that.”) After maybe six minutes, a gentleman whose badge said “Darrir Smedris, Social Warfare Specialist” zoomed in in a jeep, and introduced himself.

“Glad to meet you. Are you going to try to engage me in a social battle to determine if I’m going in? I’d switch to claws and teeth pretty fast, I warn you.”

“Well, we don’t normally allow enemy combatants into our command center…”

“I’m not an enemy combatant today. Unless you say I can’t come in,” I pointed out quite reasonably.

“Well, you’re still a hostile alien, and we don’t allow those either,” he said. I started to say something, but he continued, “But under the circumstances, I am authorized to allow you in, if you promise to be well-behaved and non-destructive and peaceful.”

“I so promise!” I approve of his attempt at sneakiness or social warfare. I was going to go in either way, and best for him if he can extract a promise of good behavior out of me. I can be just as sneaky though. He didn’t specify how long the promise was good for. Obviously it couldn’t be unending, and he hadn’t said, so I took it for the traditional twelve minutes.

So I went in. It was the best place to observe the battle, really. They had dozens and dozens of television screens showing various scenes of the waste. The big movie screen had been taken over somehow, so that it showed this and that piece of the waste, changing every few seconds under the command of a rather nervous Second Lieutenant of Communications. Half the seats in the theatre had been ripped out, replaced by folding tables holding all manner of computers and screens and radios and other very fancy and technology sorts of things.

Three dozen hoven officers stared at me. I stared back. “Just here to watch!” I said. That started a few arguments, Darrir Smedris arguing with the other officers about what General Crane had said. The arguments were resolved when General Crane strode into the theatre, apologized to her staff for my presence, and told me how displeased she was that I was there.

“I want to watch my friends kill your soldiers!” I said. I think my twelve minutes were up, but I was still mostly polite.

“Understood. Your presence is disturbing my officers, though,” she said.

“Understood. I’m not trying to help Trest fight my friends.” I said.

“Understood. If I understand our ‘war treaty’ thing, you’re not involved in this fight, right?”

“Understood! I mean, I’m not involved, I’m just watching. I’m not trying to hurt Trest’s attempt to fight my friends, I’m just not going to help either.”

“You’re not welcome here,” she said.

“Of course not!” I said. So obvious! I sprawled out in the center aisle of the theatre, and looked at the main screen. “Are your secret new weapons all ready?”

“We don’t discuss military secrets with the enemy,” said the general.

“How about the experimental new kva-rays? Ythac said that your scientists were afraid that the polyduction coils would break. Or that bomb based on the Zigrelder Effect? Will you be using that today?” Ythac had been enjoying himself.

The general didn’t answer me. “Darrir, do your best to keep the monster under control. See if you can get him out of the middle of the room.”

Darrir sat by my head. “You realize that you’re making everything more awkward here?”

“That’s fine!”

We debated the etiquette of slithering into the enemy’s command center and sitting in the middle of the room for a while. I had to concede that it was impolite to take up the whole aisle, forcing the officers to either step on me or take the long way. I didn’t move, though. I didn’t see any reason to be polite. The officers were all very nervous during this discussion, and getting more nervous as it went on.

Then the general shouted “Catastrophe Agenda!” at me, half in Ghemelian, half in Damman.

“What? Oh, right!” I said, and did my best to go limp.

The officers looked greatly relieved. “Such big monsters, and all it takes is a magic word to destroy them.” Several military guards came into the theatre carrying a few big rocket guns of the sort they use to explode tanks. The guns muttered a moderate degree of danger.

“I wasn’t expecting that to work,” Crane said. “Implement plan seven. This one’s a hostage ’til the situation’s resolved in the field.”

“Sure, but I’m not leaving the theatre,” I said.

General Crane smiled. “I don’t believe you have a choice in the matter, do you?”

I flapped my wings. “I’m not leaving! The fight’s started!” We all looked at the big screen. Csirnis and Nrararn were levitating in the middle air, side by side, as dozens of war planes flew towards them. Csirnis breathed lightning, a thin delicate bolt that could barely have used half his whefô, and exploded one plane. Nrararn curled his thezô (not visible on the material-only movie screen, but I knew how it had to look), and caused a wild horizontal tornado sort of thing, lashing around among the planes. Half a dozen more died.

The warplanes fled. The dragons followed, flying lazily in their thorny music, striking with lightning breath when they could, each breath taking a single plane.

Then the warplanes stopped and circled. The dragons stopped too — Ythac and Osoth had joined them. “Implement Plan Seven!” called out General Crane.

Large loudspeakers on the ground boomed forth, “Crompies King! Ferret Sleuth! Dung of the Harpy Eagle! Later, later, later!” Or, if you prefer, ” Give me fermented ham! I’m so doomed! Narcotic Miasma! Neither surprised!”

The screen didn’t transmit sound, but the body language was clear enough. Ythac wriggled in the sky, laughing. Csirnis and Nrararn, not in on the joke, stared at him and roared and surely interrogated him. Osoth shrugged, and flew closer to the ground to breathe a huge cloud of flame downwards. So much for the speakers.

“Sorry, we don’t have True Names, those words don’t do anything. That was just a joke between me and Ythac,” I told the general. “We didn’t tell Osoth about it though.”

The general shrugged. “Not really surprised. It sounded too good to be true.”

Darrir asked me, “Is war a joke to you?”

“No. But if you’re going to make us have a war, we might as well have some fun with it.”

“Killing people is fun to you?” he asked.

“Sometimes it is, but it isn’t usually even as much fun as mediocre wordplay with Ythac.” I peered at him. “Have you been talking to Tarcuna?”

“I got to read one of her reports, is all. If you don’t like killing people, why don’t you …”

I waved a wing to shush him. “I haven’t killed anyone today, and if those gentlemen in the back leave the bazookas in their cases, I might actually get through the whole day without killing anyone. I would be content with that. I daresay some next of kin would be content with that too.”

Osoth had gotten rather close to the ground to destroy the speakers, though. A dozen quick little howitzers blasted him with a barrage of annoyances: shells that exploded in clouds of caustic smoke, shells that exploded with huge harsh bangs, out-and-out fireworks. Nothing particularly harmful, but a plentiful supply of inconvenience. Osoth writhed and struggled in the messy air.

Two wings of fighter planes closed on him while he was clouded, firing bullets and small missiles. Osoth surely growled; I know he blasted one with flame (boom!) and another with graveyard dust (no boom). The other drakes circled overhead, presumably making bons mots at Osoth’s expense. The planes danced around.

Except for one plane, the one that Osoth had breathed death dust on. Surely that pilot felt his own death close upon him — I’ve gotten a faceful of Osoth’s dust, and it’s quite vicious. So, that pilot aimed his jet squarely at Osoth, as quickly as he could fly. Osoth, who was still in a cloud of smoke and fireworks.

Osoth tried to dodge, of course.

Osoth is the clumsiest of all dragons.

The jet hit Osoth’s left haunch, and exploded. Bits of burning metal splattered down on the battlefield. Not many bits of dragon, though. The Hoplonton is quite a good spell. Osoth, in approximately one piece despite a huge wound in his flank and his left hindleg in ruins, was presumably casting the Rose Rescaler rather than worrying too much about flying.

The other drakes stopped mocking, and flew down to rescue him. Csirnis and Nrararn grabbed him in their talons and bore him back to the sky. Ythac fluttered around him, presumably casting a new course of protective spells. Osoth’s apotropaics must have been rather ragged at that.

“Xhê tśiīaő šsyẵiąỳśś Ếsrŕyů…”, I had to say.

Darrir looked at me. “I beg your pardon?”

“A praise-song for a brave enemy,” I said.

“Would that translate into any sort of armistice, by any chance?”

“Oh, not at all. You’re the best sort of enemy. You’re very brave, there’ll be lots of good stories, but there’s not much doubt about the outcome of the battle,” I said. “Well, unless Osoth gets caught off guard and klutzy a whole lot more.”

The hovens pressed their advantage, firing huge guns, spraying huge cauldrons of flammible liquid in the air and exploding them, sending forth odd magenta and green rays, sweeping in with waves of fighter planes. A tidy little hurricane arose upon the battlefield around the dragons, courtesy of Nrararn. Trains of angry ghosts, the dead that each pilot had slain, flew after the airplanes, and their touch left huge streaks of rust and rot in the planes’ flanks, courtesy of Osoth. Csirnis breathed a vast cone of light, and a dozen planes were blinded, instruments and pilots both, and landed or crashed as best they could. Ythac used a finding-spell, and then breathed a narrow cone of darkness upon one of the experimental weapon embankments; the odd rays ceased. My drakes are so pretty when they’re fighting, I’d have married them all just then, and even perverted Ythac too.

The hovens reeled or reloaded. The drakes had a moment of peace, and finished their healing-spells. They circled over the field, and breathed flame and lightning in unison.

General Crane glared at Osoth’s now-unhurt flank and leg. “Damn it! I spent planes and guns and brave, brave men for that one hit, and for what? A sore leg on one dragon for five minutes?”

“Well, you gave them a moment of actual worry. That’s some measure of success, really,” I said.

“I’ve got a city to save,” said the general. “A moment of worry won’t do it.”

“Oh, right, that’s tomorrow’s chore. Did the hovens leave Churry City?”

“Mostly,” said Darrir. “Some refused to go. Are you ready for another thousand deaths on your conscience?”

“Well, if they chose not to go, they’re suicides. And I don’t get to burn the city either. Or loot it.”

“You sound resentful,” said Darrir sympathetically. “The other dragons are keeping you away from the glory and treasure?”

“More or less,” I said.

“Well … what if they didn’t manage to win today, would that help?” Darrir said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What if they got driven off without looting Churry City. So you’d have a chance to get your own share later, or at least keep them from being ahead of you,” he said.

“Oh! This must be Social Warfare!” I chirped.

“Well, technically, yes. A rush job of it. Still … if we’re being straightforward now … is there some sort of private deal we could arrange so that you’d stay neutral in any further conflicts?” he asked. “Not to betray your … friends? They are friends?, … just to stay out of fights.”

“Can you restore Greshthanu to life? Heal me in ways that draconic healing spells cannot? Give me the strength and size to defeat Arilash regularly? Get rid of all the cyoziworms on Hove?”

“No on restoring life. Maybe on the healing; our doctors are peerless. I will gladly arrange examinations and they will see what they can do. No on the strength and size. I had always thought that cyoziworms were something out of old wives’ tales, but if they’re real and anything like the fiction, we’d want to get rid of them too,” he said. “So we clearly have interests in common, as well as things we can do for you.”

“Right now, though, you should be quiet and let me watch my friends demolish your army,” I said. Which they were doing quite nicely. Ythac and Nrararn had assembled a very complicated and intelligent storm which rained lightning and tornadoes on the actual artillery, leaving the fake ones dry. The battlefield was crawling with skeletons, though Osoth was staying very high up and being quite cautious personally. Csirnis was darting and diving among the warplanes, elegantly ripping their wings off or tricking them into shooting each other. “Aren’t they beautiful? And kind, too, they’re mostly destroying machines and mostly letting the soldiers live when that’s convenient.”

“They certainly fight very well. And have a certain ophidian grace to them. I would rather admire them under more peaceful circumstances.”

“It should only be a few weeks more. Unless Shuvanne is awfully obstinate. People sometimes are, in the face of execution, but if he delays too much we’ll just kill him without all the formalities,” I said. He started to say something, but I added, “Which is probably better for you than losing too many more cities.”

It wasn’t a few weeks, though.

Conquest of Trest

Lunchtime in the command center was sandwiches from a deli across the street, gobbled by the officers while they watched their soldiers try and fail to hurt the drakes in any serious or lasting way. They refused to buy me any food, though I don’t particularly blame them. I wanted to watch the whole fight. I could eat with the drakes later — I planned that I’d go hunt something for them, for once.

Midway through lunch, the officers got very, very nervous. Not at the battle, which was dawdling along as it had been all morning. A message came in on a special teletype, saying, STAND BY FOR IMPORTANT CONSULAR ANNOUNCEMENT ON PUBLIC TELEVISION. There was speculation, mostly disappointed speculation that the army’s performance was so bad that the consuls would sue for peace. Which it had been.

A few minutes later, the communications specialist put the state television channel on the big screen. The picture showed the Hall of the Law, a big room where one of the secondary but very powerful branches of the Trestean government meets. Llredh, at half-size, was standing in the middle of the room, grinning hugely at the camera. Hovens sat or knelt or lay all about, well-dressed hovens who looked as if they had been extremely important until a few minutes ago and now just looked rather injured or occasionally killed. Hoven blood was splashed all about, and entrails, and fingers.

Llredh picked up one hoven, by the horrible expedient of ramming a claw into his ribcage, lifting him screaming into the air, pulling him off for long enough to show the wound to the camera, and then healing him. The hoven’s clothes and fur had been burnt off, and he had the echoy scars of many recent and recently-healed wounds. He wasn’t the only one in the room like that. Llredh had been having a torture party.

“Your time to speak, she is now!” said Llredh.

The officers around me gasped. “Shuvanne…”

Shuvanne struggled. Llredh tapped Shuvanne’s head with a claw. Shuvanne turned to the camera. “My countrymen, I bring you the news of the ultimate catastrophe. The alien monsters …”

Llredh roared, “Not all of us! Just me!”

“… this alien monster has attacked Perstra while our army was busy elsewhere.”

Llredh laughed. “The army is there, the army is here, what difference is it? Only who kills the army!”

“We have been forced to offer a complete and unconditional surrender to the dragons…”

“To Llredh only! The other dragons, if they want to share, it is me they must ask!”

Shuvanne scowled. Llredh scowled back. The two glared at each other a moment, and then Llredh said, “Your capitulation, your command to grovel, it is time for them!”

Shuvanne started to say, “I shall do no such…”. Llredh must have brushed him with his hukuchô very gently then (television doesn’t show the astral), for Shuvanne screamed and babbled and soiled Llredh’s forepaw. Llredh transferred Shuvanne to his other forepaw, and wiped the dirty one on a few limp but clothed senior Trestean officials.

A moment later, Shuvanne was able to talk coherently, though hardly able to object. He was sobbing as he spoke, “Please remain calm and go about your business. Over the next several weeks we will be arranging the transfer of control to our new masters.”

Llredh put Shuvanne down, and smiled a huge fangy smile at the camera. “The huge present, she is what Ythac gives to me, and that on the night before we become mates. The just-as-huge present that I can give back, she does not exist! The medium-sized present for my new mate, she is Trest. Lucky Trest! No better queen could any country have!”

The hovens in the command center were an assortment of studies in stunnedness and fury. Darrir waved his hands in front of my face. “Dragon! Do you have any sense of honor or decency?”

I peered at him. “I think so. Why?”

“What your friend has done violates both! What he has done is wicked, wicked! If you have any of either, you must fly to Perstra and force him to back down!”

I thought about that a bit, somewhat distracted by a tumult of all the other officers trying to figure out what to do next. “I don’t think it was at all the right way to do things. But there’s nothing wrong with conquering you. Except that we’d said that we weren’t doing any conquering when we came here.” But that wasn’t right. We’d decided not to conquer because it would be a distraction from the mating flight, but (1) Llredh has gotten mated, sort of, and (2) the mating flight is in a shambles anyhow.

“You made a war treaty! How can you not honor it?”

“Llredh wasn’t in the war treaty. Neither am I, for that matter,” I pointed out.

Bicker, bicker, bicker. Darrir and a couple other officers tried to harangue me. None of it made any sense. So I wound up saying lots of sensible things several times in various ways. Like…

  1. “No, I won’t go depose him. It would be rude, he’s my best friend’s mate, and your country is a gift to my best friend. Also he’s about twice my size, and an excellent fighter, and Ythac’s not much weaker, so I don’t think I could do it if I tried.” (This one is true.)
  2. “Yes, you should get your soldiers to stop fighting. That’s just basic manners. You’re the property of one dragon now, you shouldn’t go attacking other dragons. Even if the others don’t kill you, your master will probably be upset with you. … Um, actually, your soldiers now belong to Ythac I think, so you really shouldn’t be fighting him.” (This one is confusing, and they got very offended when I reminded them who owned them. Just like Tarcuna would have. Or Murghal, for that matter. I guess the mhelvul were used to being slaves to their gods, but hovens aren’t.)
  3. “Why on Hove do you think it’s a bad thing to be conquered by dragons? Llredh’s actually a pretty nice master, and Ythac’s wonderful. You’ll be much better off than you were before.” (This one sounded wrong and fatuous as I said it, to the point of a touch of veriception nastiness, but I had to defend my species’ honor, and try to comfort the unhappy hovens. I don’t think either half worked very well.)

In the other side of the room, General Crane was starting a discussion of how the army would resist Llredh. It was pretty technical really — starting with the distraction plus fighter crash that had hurt Osoth, and trying to add destructiveness to the point where it might, with supreme luck, be able to kill a dragon. But by “a dragon” they meant Osoth or me — once in a while one of them would point at me and say that, oh, my wings looked fragile. (They aren’t.) Llredh is much tougher, as anyone who saw us side by side could clearly see.

Which is all perfectly reasonable of them, having just been nominally conquered without having a chance to get killed when they fought back. But it was rude. After, oh, a third or five-twelfths of an hour of this, I was thoroughly annoyed with all the officers. Under other circumstances, I might have injured one or two of them. Now, of course, they belonged to Llredh, and I didn’t want to challenge him on his own new territory. (Was I even allowed to be there? I was here before it was his territory!)

So I shouted, “This isn’t proper! I will leave you to your sedition alone!”

They didn’t seem very happy about the word ‘sedition’. But they did seem happy about me leaving.

I was happy to leave too. I hate being ashamed of my species in front of small people.

The Recipient

«Ythac? Where are you and the others?»

«Flying to Perstra. Llredh did something a bit radical,» he answered.

«I saw it on television. What do you think of it?»

«Well, I’m tremendously flattered that he thought of me, of course. A bit ashamed — he’s pretty much giving me a hoard. Like I’m a girl.»

«You’re a better girl than I am!» (Intended as teasing.)

«Doesn’t take much, Jyothky.» (Good, he teased back, he’s not upset.) «Anyways, I’m pretty nervous. It’s a huge country. It’s not properly conquered. Llredh just tortured the leaders ’til they capitulated, and of course we thumped on the army a little bit. But if we’re going to start out ruling by fear, the country doesn’t fear us very much. And if we’re going to start out ruling by love, well, I don’t think even your whore is going to love us any time soon. It’s a really sweet present, but … kind of daunting.»

«Maybe you could pick out a reasonable-sized territory and conquer it properly? Dorday, say. Dorday is very nice.»

«Only if I need to. Llredh gave me this as a mating-present. I don’t want to offend him by throwing it away … or spoiling it in any way.»

«It would make rather a big mess if you two had to pacify it city by city. Oh, and also your army is planning to kill you. Llredh at least.»

«I can hardly blame them. I’m going to have a lot of work trying to get the country governable, much less do any improvements on it.» His letters looked a bit wobbly.

«Uplifter, you are?»

«Absolutely. Nothing but the best for my hovens.»

«I hope they learn to appreciate that,» I wrote back.

But they’re not going to, not this generation. Tarcuna owes me her life and soul, and isn’t really very political most of the time, and even she will be all upset at Llredh. Poor Ythac is going to have to rule with an iron claw, or not at all.

Coda: Botchery

We didn’t intend anything more vicious than maybe a bit of looting. But we’ve rather trashed several bits of Hove. In any sort of fairness, we should fix them back up before we leave.

Problem Solution
Trest: Trest is now ruled by dragons. Rather in the sense that, if you’ve just burned the head off a mile-long serpent, you’ve technically won the fight, but the thing is going to do a great deal of damage to everything around while it’s thrashing and dying. I need to, somehow, get Trest in a state which dragons and hovens are both happy with, in fairly short order. Since the hovens hate us, and Ythac can’t decently turn down Llredh’s mating-present, I don’t see that this is possible at all.
Ghemel: Ghemel is now ruled, nastily, by a pain-god from Mhel. I don’t imagine anyone but Xolgrohim and maybe Murghal are pleased with that. Well, if two full-sized dragons didn’t have trouble killing an unprepared Xolgrohim who knew nothing about draconic powers, surely one half-grown dragon shouldn’t have trouble dealing with a well-prepared Xolgrohim who’s been studying us since his undeadification, right? Maybe I can get Osoth to help. This one is his fault anyways.
Cyoziworms: We didn’t cause this problem, mirabile scriptu. But I want to solve it … by way of apology to Hove, if nothing else. Well, I can work overnight and free one hoven from a worm. At that rate, if I work all the time, I accomplish … nothing. Cyoziworms can spread very fast if they want to. I can probably get Llredh to help me, which might be good for the Trest problem.
Getting Married: Not a Hoven problem, but mine. We’ve lost more than half the drakes in only a few weeks. I don’t know if any of the remaining ones would actually want to marry me, now that they know me better. Especially if I spend the next dozen years working on Hove instead of mating flight. No idea. I suppose I can have a second mating flight if I need to. It never happens for a girl not to get married on her first, but I suppose they’d let me try again. Then a third, because I can’t see the second going any better. I doubt that I’m allowed to just hide in a cave for the rest of my life instead of getting married though; dragonesses aren’t. Eventually some drake will surely be desperate enough.

Oh, and I do mean those “I need to” parts. I’m not the only one who can do them — well, I don’t know about whether I can or not. I’m not the only one who should do them, but I’m the only one who really seems to realize that she should.

End of Book I

View of a Rebellion (Day 126)

“Your homes, your jobs, your families, to them you must return while you still live! The flames, they are ready to harm you!” Llredh circled the rioters so low that his wingtips furrowed the crowd. He kept his hukuchô curled up high in the astral plane, so that they would disperse intentionally or not at all.

“Monsters of evil! Spawn of the anti-gods! Go back to Garchune! Lady of Peppers prepares a woeful soup for your punishment!” yelled Dr. Sband. He had been delivering an incendiary sermon proclaiming that our conquest of Trest was illegal, illegitimate, and evil. (He was wrong. I’m pretty sure it was actually legal.) Grands upon grands of hovens packed Marmelane Square to hear him, and a half-dozen other speakers: brave loyalists to the former regime, or firebrands and rabblerousers, depending on your point of view.

Llredh laughed, a deep booming laugh from his throat and his wings that must have rattled every window in Churry City. “Threats of imaginary spirits, these do not impress me! Threats of riots, these do not impress me either. Burn your city down if you like! You shall not get another!”

I was circling far over Llredh’s head. This conquest is his idea. He can do all the work — and if there are any rewards from it, those are his too, to share with his husband if he wants. But Ythac had asked me to go with Llredh and keep him and Churry City safe. The hovens still had some weapons that could kill a dragon, here and there, and Llredh’s dangersense isn’t much better than my sense of touch.

The crowd didn’t seem to have any serious weapons, or not the martial kind at any rate. They weren’t there to fight us, anyways. They weren’t even expecting us to be there; after all, we’d been in Perstra the capital three hours ago.

The crowd’s weapons were the different kind, and they wore them as their clothes. By the stage two dozen judges listened to Sband, the balance-emblems on their flat-caps damp with the drizzle. Beyond them, a half-grand of hovens wearing the striped teal uniform of Churry City’s civil service, with abacus pendants for the accountants, wire circles for the gendarmes, black bottles for the secretaries, and so on. Behind them was a squad of ritual musicians, a company of refuse-takers, a brigade of shopkeepers, a legion of students. Without their labors, Churry City would be ungovernable and all but unliveable.

Dr. Sband didn’t quite seem to understand the powers at his command, though. So he invoked some powers which weren’t his to command, and, as far as I could tell, didn’t exist at all. “You are arrogant, you are foolish, you overreach yourself! Bmern and Drukah will bring destructions to you!”

Llredh didn’t understand what opposed him, either. He roared, “My might, you doubt her? My ruthlessness, you doubt her? Your country, she is the present for my wife Ythac! I do not tolerate disobedience towards Ythac! Dispersal and obedience, these are your protections from me! Silly gods, fake gods, not so much so!”

“They are serious gods, real gods! You will discover this soon, to your harm!”

Llredh arched his head back, as one does when one is about to breathe powerfully. I squealed at him, “Stop! Don’t do that!” He ignored me, of course. His flames covered the stage and splashed further, scorching judges, singing accountants and gendarmes and secretaries, heating the face-fur of musicians and refuse-takers and shopkeepers. He wasn’t trying to kill them very much though. He uses tighter, hotter fire on his friends.

The stage burned, where it was wood. Hoven clothes and fur burned. Trestean flags set around the stage burned. (We hadn’t yet replaced the Trestean flag, but the hovens were using it as a symbol of opposition to us.) The hovens on the stage fled if they could, but a dozen of them couldn’t. The hovens in the audience mostly fled too. Of course, Marmelane Square doesn’t have very good exits, so some of them fled and some of them fell and got trampled by the others’ hooves.

Llredh boomed, “Who can stand against me? There is no hoven, there is no dragon, there is no god on Hove who can! Peaceful submission to me, she alone is your hope and your survival!” This was a bit of a boast past truth. Csirnis and Llredh are fairly evenly matched.

Rather more practically, I swooped down and landed on the stage. Or tried to; my left hindleg was on the wooden part, the burning wooden part, and fell through. No great matter, really. I swept the fallen hovens off the burning part of the stage, and started putting the Arcane Anodyne into them.

“Jyothky! Your chore, what is she, why is she? These people, they opposed me, they are dying! What could be simpler? There is nothing, there can be nothing!” he said in Grand Draconic. (Actually he talks normally in Grand Draconic, I’ve just made it sound like the way he usually talks.)

“Ythac asked me to keep you from destroying Churry City too much. That includes not killing all the people.”

“My breath, I rendered her moderate! Those who die, they are few in number and circumscribed! The rest, they learn!”

“You’re better off letting them accept your rulership and live. Says Ythac, not just me.”

“Will they live?” Llredh landed nearby, on the stone pavement of the square.

“I’m not that bad with healing spells, on hovens. I’ve had lots of practice, fixing Tarcuna after I killed her cyoziworm,” I reminded him.

He roared and struck the pavement with his tail, so that it crazed and shattered. “The worm, the worm, the vile worm! I do not forget the worm! Soon, soon must I pacify Trest! For my wife, yes, but for my revenge too!”

I scooped up another struggling hoven. A minister or something, it’s hard to tell after their clothes are burned off. “Why are you calling Ythac your wife, Llredh? He’s a boy. You’re both boys.” They’re on the “perverts” side of the mating flight. I’m on the “cripples” side, myself.

“Hah! Last night we have the mount-fight, only without the fighting. The love, that is easy with Ythac. But the sex, there are many choices, some nights we want to not be so careful. The quick game of cards, we play her, that is our mount-fight! Ythac loses. So he is my wife again. So often he is!”

“I don’t see how you can pretend to have the least bit of honor, if that’s how you carry on.”

“The gambling debt, what is more honorable than keeping her?”

“You picked the stakes, though. It wasn’t like an open-ended gamble with a small person, where you didn’t expect to lose and you get surprised by the result.”

“No, it was not that,” said Llredh. “Zṥràsḫiọ źó Hrašśiǒ” Politeness is lightness.

“Right. Well, the next time I ask a question like that, just look mysterious and superior and don’t tell me the nasty little answer.”

Ythac’s the Horizonal Quill wrote words in my mind. «Llredh broke up the demonstration already, didn’t he?»

«Yes. One cloud of fire, and they all ran off. I’m healing the ringleaders now. You did want them healed, didn’t you?»

«Oh, thank you! Could you make sure they don’t run off before I get them arrested? I’d ask Llredh, but he’d probably sit on them.»

«He’s not very happy with them, or with me.»

«He likes you just fine,» Ythac wrote.

«Right. I was his third-favorite girl in the mating flight.» Which is, of course, calling Ythac a girl, just like Llredh did. I was annoyed at both of them though.

«I really am trying to get you to be friends with each other.»

«I’d be a lot happier being his friend if he weren’t fireblasting crowds of hovens. Or torturing hovens. Or conquering hovens.»

«That’s just an excuse. You’ve killed nearly as many hovens as he has. Your moral superiority over my husband is pretty scanty.» Ythac wrote.

«I don’t torture people or steal their countries,» I answered. If you are ever in an ethical discussion and that’s your best response, you’ve pretty much lost. So I healed the last couple of hovens on the stage. They weren’t exactly very scorched; they’d run up to see if they could help the speakers, and sort of gotten trapped between Llredh and me.

« And neither of you reanimates dead mhelvul paingods and doesn’t take proper care of them and lets them take over major cities, like your fiancé Osoth,» wrote Ythac. «I don’t think any of us are in a particularly strong moral position at this point. I think we’ve got to stay around here for a gross-year or two. Long enough to give the hovens all the benefits of proper draconic rule. By way of apology for all the chaos and devastation we’ve given them so far, even if you’re not much of an Uplifter.»

«We’ve certainly got plenty to apologize for, and I think I’m getting to be an Uplifter.» I agreed. «I’m not sure that Llredh’s style of enforcing rule is going to give us less to apologize for, though.» Dangersense mumbled of a minor threat off from a corner of the square. «Sorry, Ythac, I’ve got to go. Someone’s shooting at us.»

«Thanks, Jyothky!» Ythac wrote.

A purple-furred hoven woman was running across the mostly-empty plaza towards us, holding a big ray gun. When I turned to look at her, she stopped running and pointed it at me. I swatted it out of her hands with a wingtip. She raced after it, shouting, “You killed my husband!”

“I did?” I asked, and breathed lightning on the ray gun before she could get to it. She hadn’t been lying, but I hadn’t killed anyone in a while. At least three or four weeks.

“He’s in the street over there! He fell while everyone was running, and nobody stopped to help him up, they just ran all over him, and you killed him!”

“The error, she comes here with a ray gun!” said Llredh. “The dragons, they did not kill your husband. The hovens, they killed him.”

So I bit his tail.

“What is that for, Jyothky?”

I waddled towards the edge of the square. A dozen or so hovens were lying trampled and bloody by each street out of the plaza, with a few less-injured ones trying to tend them here and there. “Which one is your husband?”

She pointed. Her husband was quite mangled, marked with the prints of many hooves. His right eye was smashed, and many bones broken here and there. “He’s not quite dead though.” I put the Arcane Anodyne into him. Twice, because the first one didn’t fill him.

He moaned, and tried to sit up. Which wasn’t a very good idea. A few barely-healed bones broke again, from the sound of it. So I got his wife to make him lie down again, and put another the Arcane Anodyne into him, and some of the slow healing spells. And then did the other injured hovens, because that seemed fair.

And then the gendarmes came. They weren’t particularly racing to the square all full of obedience to their beloved draconic overlords. But Ythac had been intimidating the gendarmes chief, rather more gently than Llredh had been intimidating the crowd, and had persuaded him of the obvious truism that the citizens of Churry City would be better off if they enforced the dragons’ decrees rather than making the dragons do it themselves.

The hovens at my corner were quiet and subdued. Maybe I was mollifying them by healing their wounded, or maybe they remembered that I had destroyed the Peace Everywhere Array more or less single-handedly. The gendarmes put the husband and a few others of the injured on stretchers, and arrested the wife and some of the other helpers.

“Why are you arresting them?” I asked of the lieutenant or whatever in charge.

The lieutenant looked away from me. “Gendarme chief said to arrest the people in the square.”

“Probably mostly the ones on the stage,” I said.

The lieutenant looked over to where Llredh was towering over some previously-grilled speakers. “Um … Chief said everyone. We gotta do everyone. Starting with these, I guess.” He and his men started asking many, many questions to the people they had captured. “We gotta be thorough. Chief said so.”

On the other side of the square, matters weren’t so peaceful. The uninjured audience members were yelling at the gendarmes who were trying to arrest them. The argument had a few salient and intellectually substantial points:

  1. The audience members were assisting some injured people. (Quiet gendarme answer: their medics will take care of them.)
  2. The audience members committed no crime. (Morose gendarme answer: Chief said to arrest you.)
  3. The audience members are loyal Tresteans; the gendarmes are collaborators. (Miserable gendarme answer: Archons say the dragons are in charge. What’re we gonna do?)

So I waddled over and healed their injured people as best as I could, which helped on point 1 a lot. I didn’t really have much of an answer for points 2 or 3. The dragons in charge are Ythac and Llredh. It’s their territory, I’m just a guest trying to be helpful.

To my best friend, his horrible husband, and his vast empire of exceedingly unhappy subjects. This is getting to be a problem.

Rituals of Conquest (Day 144)

Some days, we seem to be drowning Trest in a sea of blood and flame. That’s perfectly normal. Other days, like today, we’re trying to drown it in a sea of dramaturgy. I suppose I should worry more about the blood and flame.

Tarcuna woke me up in her customary manner of these days. Specifically, by picking her Dragon-Taming Staff — which is a length of steel drain pipe to which she has attached some heavy hand-sized bells and cloth streamers — and thumping my eye with it until the noise or the danger woke me up. (If the staff isn’t at hand, she’ll use a chair or something, which works just as well.) She has realized that I am not going to kill her for any but the gravest of reasons, and exploits that mercilessly.

“I’m not asleep, I’m awake,” I said, in tediously non-rhyming Trestean.

“It’s humiliate-the-Tresteans day. Ceremony’s in a little over an hour,” she said.

I twisted my head around and glared at my body, which was still small and tubby and flat black. “Oh, that’s right. I’d better get ready then.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll let me out of it?” she asked.

“You might be part of the Diplomatic Brigate of old Trest, in which case you belong there for one reason. Otherwise, you’re part of my retinue. Actually you’re all of my retinue, and I certainly want you there.”

“Everyone watching will think I’ve sold my country,” she said.

“Which isn’t so far off,” I said. “At least you got a good price.”

“You are unbearably comforting sometimes,” she said. “At least I had the foresight to attach myself to you by unbreakable bonds before the conquest.”

I slithered out of my tent — Ythac had acquired some big tents for the dragons to sleep in — and started shapeshifting a row of curved spikes down my back. “You can leave any time you like, as far as I’m concerned. I’d be sorry to see you go of course. But I don’t really need a hoven prostitute very much, much less a retired one.”

“Only if you send me away again,” she said. “It’s not just the side effects of getting freed. You’ve conveniently made me the enemy of honest and loyal people everywhere.”

“I’m honest! I’m loyal!” I noted, while I gave myself a triple rack of black lyre-shaped horns. Impractical as anything, but they ought to be pretty.

“‘People’ means the sort of people you call ‘hovens’. We don’t even like that name,” said Tarcuna. She got out a cosmetic kit, and started tinting her ears blue. She muttered, “If I’m a political whore, I might as well dress the part.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Decent people do not wear bright blue ear-dye to formal events, as my parents were very careful to tell me several dozen times,” said Tarcuna. “But I am doing it anyways. In case anyone might possibly wonder whether I consider myself decent.”

I don’t know what to do about her when she’s in that sort of mood. So I made her do something useful instead. “Well, I want to look proper. Do I?”

She stared up at me. “Tilt your head right … turn a bit … No, your horns on the left are a lot closer than on the right.”

I fixed them, and checked with a scrying spell. “Ah. Thank you.”

The Stone of Merraro

Behind the great cathedral of Merraro is a glorified and very sacred shed. It’s decorated like a chapel itself, with carved illustrations of the benevolent suns and some mythical angels and whatnots. It’s lit by (as of yesterday) thirty-eight big oil lamps with the flags of the nations that merged into Trest. But it’s still a big shed, for storing a big rock.

And it is, indeed, rather a big rock. It is almost rectangular except for a long spike on the top right, making it about the length of my neck total, and half that wide, and a nice solid two or three feet thick. It’s a pretty grey color, with faint swirly spirals of darker grey shot through with golden sparkles of pyrite. And, according to the guidebooks, in days that Trest thought more glorious, Archconsul Nespers — who was a stonemason in her youth — carved the first treaty establishing Trest. For amity, for loyalty, — for glory, for peace, for civilization, we do freely and gloriously unite together and form the country of Trest. Pleovar, Ventelia, Greater Naspen,… Thirty-eight names are carved in the stone, seven of them by Nespers’ hand. (I don’t know why the guidebook says that; hoven hands don’t have claws to speak of. I’m sure she used tools.) The rest came later, as other countries joined Trest. I don’t know who carved them though.

Lots of people — both kinds of people — had been collected to observe the fate of the big rock. Lawmakers and treasurers and generals, wearing their greatest finery, with silken cords binding their hands to their necks. Reporters for newspapers and television stations. Hated and hateful the event would surely be, but a thoroughly-documented hatefulness. Dozens of gendarmes, wearing new blue and orange spiked caps. And of course the seven former consuls of former Trest were there. They didn’t get to wear their finery though. They wore leather yokes, with heavy chains trailing behind.

And us, of course: the seven remaining dragons, all looking as glorious as possible. «Ythac, why aren’t you making a point of having seven dragons and seven consuls?» I asked him.

«Couldn’t think of anything sensible to do with it. If you five had asked to rule Trest under us, I might have done something with it. Since you’re not planning to help us, or even stay past the end of the mating flight, I didn’t want to make you seem like crucial symbolic elements to the dracarchy.» Ythac’s mental letters were jerky, the points on the “i” and “f” tall and spiky. But I couldn’t tell that he was nervous just to look at him. He was a sculpture of delicate blues and greens, his natural spikes augmented by secondary ruffs, staring monumentally at the hovens. Llredh, next to Ythac, grinned a huge predatory grin, and curled his tail over Ythac’s.

The chief of gendarmes gestured at the lawmakers with her baton. Most of the lawmakers dropped to their knees and recited in a loud ragged unison, “We are gathered today to surrender our empire to Llredh and Ythac our conquerors.” Two of them, more battered than most, refused to kneel and chant. The chief gestured. Two frozen-faced gendarmes picked their way through the surrenderers. They tied cords of catgut around the arms of the resisters, and twisted them slowly. The others finished their recitation, and then started it again, quietly, as a background obbligato to the rest of the ritual.

Llredh roared. “Let Archconsul Shuvanne bring forth the ancient symbols of Trestean unity, so that we may revise it to show the reality that is now, and evermore shall be!” He had obviously been rehearsing too, or that would have come out in his usual twisty speech.

Gendarmes unrolled the chains that trailed off the backs of the consuls’ harnesses, and carried them into the shed, and hooked them into seven hooks in the front of a cart. Someone surreptitiously started a little motor, too: the Stone of Merraro was far too heavy for seven unathletic hovens to drag. But the consuls had to do a good deal of the work.

The leaders of Trest wept when the Stone of Merraro rolled out of the shed. One of the two who had resisted fell to his knees then, and the catgut was untied from his arms, and he joined the chant.

Ythac reared on his hind legs, and spread his glorious blue wings. “Hovens of Trest! Your former rulers were fonts of wickedness! They stole from you the admiration that all of Hove once had, and replaced it by universal fear and resentment! They took your money and your peace and your children, and built weapons and tried to impose their will upon the whole of the world. You poured forth your blood and your labor, and all that came to you was hatred and strife! At last, in their arrogance and blindness, the consuls challenged the world-travellers, the world-conquerors, the dragons. Such a thing could not endure, and has not endured.

“And today the supremacy of the consuls is over. Today my husband and I shall rule you. Today is the beginning of peace, of harmony, of prosperity and joy.”

Ythac and Llredh reared their heads back and breathed together upon the Stone of Merraro, darkness and flame. I wasn’t entirely sure that darkness and flame were the best symbols of peace, harmony, prosperity, and joy. Speaking as a fire-breather myself.

Llredh’s fire neatly melted the top spike off the top of the Stone. That sort of evened it out, which will do for a symbol of harmony, I suppose. The crunch of the spike falling back and breaking the wall of the shed sure won’t.

I don’t think the hovens noticed the result of Ythac’s darkness at first. A few seconds later Tarcuna wailed, “The words! The words!”

The Stone now read, For agony, for legality, for humiliation, for passivity, for submission, we are compelled to deliver the unity of Trest into the claws of Ythac and Llredh.”

«I didn’t know you could pervert meanings with that,» I wrote to him.

«It’s like causing grammatical errors, only semantic. I did cheat a bit with a language spell though,» he wrote back.

And then the ritual got exceedingly dull. Ythac had composed a Charter for the Dracarchy of Trest. It was generally based on the Charter of the Consularchy of Trest, except that Ythac and Llredh, each, have absolute authority to do whatever they want. Mostly, though, the hovens are expected to govern themselves, as long as they do so wisely in Ythac’s opinion. Not the sort of ûj you might expect.

The only part that was the least bit interesting was when the last remaining resister needed to get his arm amputated. I broke the script a bit and put a healing spell into him afterwards.

Coda: Conquest Party

Afterwards, of course, there was a big reception in the huge public square in front of the cathedral. Everyone at the ritual had to attend the reception too, of course. Only a handful of Merrarovians came, and they mostly didn’t eat very much and didn’t look very happy.

But Ythac and Llredh did pick up a gaggle of hovens, eager to chatter with them, to flatter them, to offer their services. I only recognized the chief of gendarmes. So I asked Tarcuna, “Who are those people?”

“I don’t know many of them. The one with the red stripes and the red cape is named Uborst. His picture’s in the paper sometimes, he does a lot with politics. The one next to him is Larella Spargee. She’s very rich, she gave a great deal to Archconsul Shuvanne. I don’t know the others … oh, that one with the green and pink globes is Reverend Dreyrey.. He’s in some strange sect or other, he’s on television a lot. We always changed the channel when he started talking.”

“Well, I’m glad that some important people look like they want to cooperate with Ythac and Llredh. They’re going to have an awful time trying to govern a huge nation by force, just the two of them,” I said.

“People who attach themselves to the dragons aren’t going to be people you’d want to rely on. Anyone with any principles or moral integrity is going to oppose you. Even if you cut their arms off,” said Tarcuna. She flopped her useless arm.

“I’m sure Ythac can get them to behave decently,” I said. “They can’t really keep secrets from Ythac, and people like that are surely going to be particularly cowardly and susceptable to threats of violence.”

“Have I been paraded around in public enough yet? I’m the only Trestean citizen lucky enough not to be surrendering to Llredh and Ythac today. Even if that’s because you already got me.”

Well, since I do have her, I have to take care of her. “You can. I’m going to stay here ’til the end of the reception though.”

The Best Food On Hove (reprise) (Day 148)

We — the mating flight, plus Tarcuna — have been staying in Perspeckle, by the Quenjo Wastes. The hovens here are not terribly happy with us. They are mostly soldiers, or the families and friends of soldiers. They hate the drakes quite reasonably and (uninvolved) Arilash and me quite unreasonably for killing so many of their comrades in our abortive war. They hate all of us (quite unreasonably) for the dragons who are not us conquering their country. Oh, and they hate me (quite reasonably) for destroying the Peace Everywhere Array, with which they could have won the war.

I am beginning to understand my parents a bit more. When they first conquered Mhel, all the mhelvul hated them too. I can smell the hatred when I fly low over Perspeckle. I have taken to flying with my mouth closed, which helps some.

They don’t dare disobey us, though. Not when they remember how easily the drakes destroyed their best-prepared army.

Darrir came to my barn this morning. Darrir is a former Social Warfare specialist of the former Army of former Trest. He regularly tries to make some of those less ‘former’. So I greeted him with, “Good morning, Darrir. What’s the sedition of the day?”

He looked a bit pained. “Today, you have a phone call.”

I do? Not Tarcuna?” Tarcuna spends time on the phone each day with friends in Dorday. I have at most seven friends on Hove, five of whom are close at hand, the sixth can write messages on my mind whenever he likes, and the seventh is Llredh, who isn’t much of a friend and could get Ythac to write to me if he wanted to. So I’ve never gotten a phone call.

He held out a sophisticated technological telephone thing to me. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, since I’d probably poke a hole through it when I pushed the ‘talk’ button, so I made Darrir work it. It was awkward.

“Hallo?” Which is the traditional way you talk on the phone, I think.

“Hallo, Joffee. I’m Churdle, you ate a vask on the farm, then we gave you some chili and troublecakes,” said a scratchy little voice missing all the high and low tones.

“Yes, you had something wrong with your polysthegides and Fralian nodes. I put the Arcane Anodyne into you … did it work?”

“Well, it worked, I don’t have Moray-Lagrozo Syndrome any more, thanks for that,” he said scratchily.

“You sound rather miserable,” I said, because he did. “What’s biting your tail?” But of course he doesn’t have a tail.

“Well, you see, mister dragon, we’d taken some pictures of you and showed them all ’round. And we spoke well of you, telling everyone all around what you’d done with the healing and all. We were grateful, me ‘specially,” he said. Which was mostly true, I think, though it’s harder to alethiocept over the phone.

“Well, that’s all fair, it sounds like,” I said.

“But then you go and smash our army and conquer our country…”

I motioned to Darrir to mash the ‘talk’ button. “I didn’t! That was Llredh. Except the Peace Everywhere Array.”

“Well, mister dragon,” said the farmer, who evidently didn’t get a very good look at me. I suppose it was dark in the barn. But if I argued with everything, I wouldn’t get much of a conversation. “My neighbors, they don’t quite fuss about which of you did which piece of it. And it’s not a friendly place to live when everyone thinks you’re a dragon-lover.”

Which was astounding. “Dragon lover? Just what have you been telling people that you’ve done with me? Or who was it?” But that’s not what he meant — for which I am very glad — he meant “partisan of the dragons”.

“Anyhow, my neighbors aren’t so happy with us now. Coming around with rifles and clubs, is how not happy they are. I hid behind the woodpile. They shot Looskie dead, though, and a few of the others are bad hurt. Basanne, she’s got a big hole in her belly. She’s the one who cooked that chili for you. And the doctor, he won’t come by our farm any more. Except he did last night, he was one with a rifle. Could you come here and heal her, like you did for me?”

Troublesome hovens. Always killing each other and then asking you to take care of things. Well, in a few duodecades Ythac will surely set things right. In the meantime … «Ythac? Mind if I go heal some farmers by Churry City?»

«Hi, Jyothky. Go right ahead.»

«I’ll owe you the tribute, OK?»

«If you keep insisting on the formal etiquette, I am going to bite your tail seven times,» he wrote.

«Just being polite, you prickle drake!» I told him. “Certainly. I’ll be there in, oh, perhaps five-twelfths of an hour.”

“Thank you kindly, sir dragon,” he said.

I got the Melismatic Tempest and a bit of teasing from Arilash, and flew for Churry City.

How to Heal a Farmer

Churdle’s farm was looking a bit chewed around the edges, when I got there. A shed was in ashes, and the glass windows on the farmhouse were smashed and replaced by something that smelled like oiled paper. Which didn’t seem like a very good defense against fire, really. Hovens aren’t very good at tactics.

Five rather grim and rather injured farmers met me. I squeaked, “Hallo, Churdle, Joffinet, Marfy, all the rest!” Fortunately I had remembered to reread Day 48.

Churdle said quietly, “Joffee’s inside, on the couch. Can you help her, too?” I had to shrink to not much bigger than a horse to get inside, and that took some squirming, but I didn’t want to look any less impressive than I had to. The black-timbered farmhouse was a mess. They used to have shelves of china statues, intricate clocks, glass teapots, but they had been smashed to the ground, and swept in piles in the corners of the sitting room.

Three badly wounded hovens lay on the couches, shivering with fear and stinking with rotting wounds. Joffinet, who was about adolescent, had bullet holes in one leg, one arm, and one shoulder. Basanne, Joffinet’s mother, had been shot in the intestines and not cleaned up very well, and looked and smelled as if she was going to die in a few hours. “Oh, that’s not good,” I said, and started putting the Arcane Anodyne into them. So much for the wounds.

Basanne and my definitely-not-namesake rubbed at their sides and arms, where they had smooth skin and flat fur where they had just had septicemia. They thanked me for a while, but the only part I remember is Basanne apologizing for not having any delicacies to feed me. To which the only answer was, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I had breakfast this morning; last time I hadn’t eaten for two days.”

There was a mumble of light danger and a rumble of light engines from the driveway. The farmers looked scared, and scrabbled around to find rifles and an old sabre. Hooves clattered on the stone walkway, and deep voices growled, “Dragon-lovers! What’d you do, call your friend back?”

I stuck my head out the doorway. “I’m the only dragon-lover here, and I think I’m allowed.”

A dozen or so angry and poorly-armed hovens glared at me. “Dragon! Monster! Defiler of our country! We kill you now!”

They raised their guns, which, as noted above, mumbled light danger.

I reached out with my wings to sweep the guns out of their hands. Nothing happened; my wings didn’t get to them. I turned my head to look, and realized that all of me except the head was inside the house. My wings had hit the doorframe and I didn’t feel it. I am such an idiot. Or at least not used to fighting indoors.

And by the time I had figured that out, they had put a dozen bullets into my head and neck.

I glared at them. This was going to be awkward. «Ythac? Some of your hovens are shooting at me.»

«I’m sure it’s just a celebratory display or something,» he wrote back.

«I wish so. They started out by saying, “We kill you now!” I am sorry, Ythac. Oh, they just shot me some more.»

«Are you hurt? I know you can’t always tell.» So I had to check, but I wasn’t much. «What did you do to them?» he asked. So I had to explain.

«No real choice,» he wrote. «Kill them and their families.»

«You’re the ruler!» I scribbled back. «You’re in charge of justice! You do it!»

«Look: you antagonized them. You execute them.»

«I was just healing some of your other hovens! I was doing you a favor, having your subjects not die, contributing to the prosperity of your realm!»

«Interfering in a local dispute without asking me first! My, Jyothky, I do believe I have caught you in a violation of etiquette finally!» The fifth volley hit me in the left eye.

«All right, all right. Where are their families, anyways?» I answered, because I really was feeling bad about being so rude to him.

«One minute.»

So I healed my eye, and killed the attacking farmers with forky lightning. Carefully; I didn’t want to break the farm any more than it already was. The friendly farmers howled. “Are any of you hurt?” I asked them, but they weren’t. “I have an errand to do, I’m afraid. Killing their families; that’s the punishment for attacking a dragon without permission.” They wailed incoherently.

I didn’t have far to fly; Churdle’s neighbors had been punishing him. A bit of flame, a bit of lightning, and two wives, one husband, six children, and various assorted livestock were dead as required by the oldest of draconic laws. The farmhouse next beyond that was a bit bigger, and eleven more people died for the crimes of their families.

The rest came from an old manor a mile away, a big house of stone and brick and black timbers on top of a hill, all surrounded by almond trees and gardens. The house shimmered upside-down in a reflecting pond by the front walk, where elegant blue-scaled fish swam. It smelled of roses, more than Perstra, even. Two children played at hoops on a gravel path. A heavy breath of flame roasted everyone in it alive, though I didn’t bother with the children outside. They ran away screaming, and I suppose they survived or something.

By then I was furious. At Ythac for making me do his justice. At the neighbors for attacking me and making me kill them. At Churdle for calling me in. At myself for not squirming my whole tubby body out of the farmhouse when the danger came. At my great-to-the-whatever grandparents for making a horrible law like that. At everyone, really.

So I breathed on the manor again and again. The wood in the walls burned, and the almond trees and aromatic bushes all around. The stone glowed red, then white, and then slumped and pooled as so much magma. I switched to ice breath, then, and the magma froze and cracked and exploded. I alternated, heavier and heavier breaths each time. When the flame came, the stone spattered and boiled. When the frore came, the stone froze and shattered.

«Jyothky? What on Hove are you doing to that building?» Ythac’s writing was small and precise, apologetic.

Well, there’s no breathing at him across the Horizonal Quill. «I promised that I’d crunch your wings up and then forgive you for, what was it, promising to marry me and then choosing another boy instead, remember?»

«You promised, but you’ve never done it yet. Want to now?»

«Yes. Where are you, Perstra?»

«Yes, but I don’t want to be seen getting chomped in public and not fighting back. I’m a very dignified ruler. Can I join you in Perspeckle?»

«Yes» He owns Perspeckle anyways.

Grooming

I didn’t get around to it, though, because I got there much before Ythac did.

“Sacred suns, Jyothky, what happened to you?” squeaked Tarcuna. My brave and helpful fiancés were bravely and helpfully off cavorting with my rival.

“I got into a fight with some farmers. Outside Churry City.”

“What did they do to you?”

“Shot me, died. About what you’d expect.”

“What did they shoot you with?” She made me look at my face in a mirror.

“Oh, that’s just shards and scoria. I got a bit upset at a stone building afterwards.”

“Put your head down here.” She started prying bits of rock-splatter off of me with her one good arm. “Tell me what happened. You sound angry and miserable.”

“I was just going there to heal a friend … she’s a good cook …” and on and on, I probably whined at her half an hour, lying on my back, until Ythac got there. I didn’t bite him even once, though. I just lay there and let the two of them clean the ruin off my face.

“I’m going to transport those farmers,” Ythac proclaimed regally. “Move them halfway across the country to a new farm, and nobody will know who they are or why to hate them.”

I have the best friends in Hove.

Which would mean a lot more if I, personally, weren’t the worst friend in Hove.

Coda: New Alignments

Nrararn was rather surprised to see Ythac tending me, and poked him with his sparky twirly horn until he slithered aside and let Nrararn groom me instead. Which is fine. Nrararn is a sweet little drake, and one that I actually could marry, and might. And I think he’d let me, for some reason that I cannot begin to understand.

He dug a bullet out of my inner eyelid. “You didn’t have the beautiful Uplifter day, it looks like, Jyothky?”

“Not very Uplifty at all, actually,” I said. “Well, I tried to.” And had to tell the whole story to the mating flight.

Arilash shook her head. “When you spend too much time around small people, you start getting tangled in small people concerns and small people feelings and small people fights. Sorry, Tarcuna, but it’s true.”

“Says the dragoness as she apologizes to the offended hoven,” noted Ythac.

Arilash whipped him with her tailtip. “It’s true, though, and you will see it in great awful clawfuls as you rule Trest. When we’re too close to them, we get all involved, and usually small people die from it. My parents were all political with their mhelvul, and kept having to execute this one for embezzling, or that one for threatening to sic Mother on his rivals, or the other one for being too harsh an overlord. And both my parents are the upliftiest Uplifters on Mhel.”

Osoth cocked his head. “To exhume this matter with a somewhat hypothetical air, albeit with an inadequate armamentarium of other hypothetical implements, which alignment might you subscribe to? You have just cast the effulgence of your intellect upon the bitter entanglements of the Uplifters. Yet that executionary act which spatters your speech with regret is one which Downcrushers do not deign to dread.”

Arilash peered at me. “Did he just say ‘yes’? I couldn’t tell.” I sort of blinked miserably at her. Nrararn took the opportunity to clean some nonexistant scoria off the tip of my muzzle, so I obviously couldn’t talk even if I had wanted to. (I hereby award a fiancé point to Nrararn for cleverness and another for kindness. Unfortunately my tally is weeks and weeks completely out of date.)

Arilash sat on her haunches, and groomed her left talon a bit. She quietly said, “Neither one suits me very well. There are all sorts of choices in the society of dragons which don’t suit me. Decent or slutty? Married or single? Uplifter or Downcrusher? Drake or dragoness, for that matter, though that’s not so much a choice as just a dichotomy. Why can’t I make up a new affiliation? Overflyer, let me call it. I’ll fly over the small people, I’ll tend to my matters, and let them tend to theirs. Everyone will be better off. Jyothky, you can come with me.” She sounded kind when she said that. Actually I think I was the only one paying the least bit of attention to mating flight etiquette in the whole conversation.

I just whiffled a bit, noncommittally. I mostly like small people, despite winding up killing them constantly.

Csirnis reared his head. “I agree that the choices on that dichotomy are unfortunate. Uplifter or Downcrusher, yes, but either way we are the rulers. If one has no love of governing, neither choice brings delight.”

Nrararn rose to the bait. “No love of governing, perhaps. But who shall tend the herds of cattle you and your mate and your spawn will require? Who shall weave and sew your tents? Who shall build your home? Or do you wish to live in a cave and chase boars and wild whales to eat?”

“I don’t know how to live the way I want,” grumbled Arilash. “Not about small people, and not about other things, either.”

Csirnis curled his tail over his forepaws, and looked more superior than he usually does. “In Ze Cheya, during the still-unfinished game of Hide and Seek…”

“I found you all,” said Ythac.

“… In the just-finished game of Hide and Seek, then, I experimented with a different approach. If Arilash calls hers Overflying, I shall call mine Withdwelling. I lived in Ze Cheya, in a home that the hovens gave to me, and I ate some quite delicious roast oxen and such that the hovens cooked for me, and I hoarded treasures ranging from amusing to exceptional that the hovens gave me as gifts. And, at the time, the hovens were glad to do all of that. I labored for them, you see. I was not terribly different from the cook at the noodle shop across from my home. I would happily live that way again. It gripes my conscience less than any other way I have lived, and provided for my comfort just as well.”

The rest of us looked dubious. Arilash said, “The aftermath gripes my conscience, and, with apologies to Tarcuna, I don’t even care about hovens.”

“Mine as well, dear Arilash,” Csirnis answered. “I have not mastered life yet. Still, the root causes of Greshthanu’s death and the destruction of Ze Cheya were largely outside of my attempt at Withdwelling.”

Ythac huffed and glared. “I count myself as a traditional Uplifter. I rule Trest, and I will yet make Trest as close to a utopia as I can manage.”

“You are more ambitious than I am!”

“For the sake of symmetry, then, I shall proclaim myself a Downcrusher,” said Osoth.

Nrararn stared at him. “Whenever I turn my back, you fly off to do archaeology and necromancy with a research expedition full of hovens.”

“We all have our little hobbies, Nrararn,” hissed Osoth.

“Distinctly uncrushed hovens,” Nrararn noted.

“And sometimes our little hobbies get in the way of our nominal philosophical positions,” Osoth hissed smoothly.

“I’m the Downcrusher here,” I mumbled. “I killed five dozen hovens today.”

“And you sound so pleased with yourself for it,” said Tarcuna.

“I didn’t want to!”

Nrararn flomped a wing over my back, which would be comforting if I could feel it. “You’re not a Downcrusher. You’re just willing to do what needs to be done, when the rest of us are a bit too squeamish.” (Three fiancé points to Nrararn for the day.)

I sprawled against him, and listened to Arilash and Csirnis debate impossible philosophical positions.

Back To The Mating Flight (Day 150)

After the conquest was made official in the eyes of … um … I’m not sure that anyone but Llredh and Ythac would consider it official, if them … the rest of us took to the air and fluttered around and tried to figure out what to do.

“Csirnis found us a very nice city,” I said. “A shame it got broken.”

“They might take us back,” said Csirnis. “We didn’t entirely make ourselves unwelcome.”

“I have no great desire to spend every morning healing hovens,” said Osoth. “Especially if they are not my own hovens.”

I thought about Tarcuna, and Churdle and others. “We’ll get better service from the hovens if they think we’re good to have around.”

“I exemplify this principle more cogently than you, Jyothky! Do you not remember how eager the archaeologists at the Prevalian Tombs greeted me?” said Osoth. Obnoxious beast.

Nrararn laughed and shook sparks out of his mane. “Or better service still if they fear us. We could help Ythac and Llredh rule Trest for a while.”

“Llredh may be my spirit-brother in many ways. But I do not want to rule any country,” said Arilash. “Not that I will complain when Jyothky helps her spirit-brother.”

“I frequently engage in commerce — and, indeed, in repartée — with actual spirits. I confess myself unaware of the means by which two dragons may be siblings in a necromantic sense,” said the obnoxious beast.

Arilash puffed smoke towards Osoth. “Just a metaphor I picked up from some hovens.”

Osoth puffed deadly dust back towards Arilash. “A metaphor based on a wholly inaccurate understanding of their own spiritual nature, to say nothing of yours! Such a metaphor can do you no good. You must breathe upon it quickly!”

Arilash laughed. “You’d never have argued back when the mating flight started. Ready access to claspers is already distorting your judgment!”

“Bah. When the mating flight started, I had little hope of ending up with a mate. That is no longer such a bitter concern, for several regrettable but not in all instances regretted reasons. Obsequiousness is no longer a dire necessity!”

Arilash stared at him. “Does this mean you won’t be doing the hunting and cooking any more?”

Osoth coughed a poisonous cloud. “Cooking was never my greatest pride, also for several regrettable but not in all instances regretted reasons. I should hope that, for the remainder of the mating flight, grateful and slightly intimidated hovens will rejoice to provide us with provender.”

“He said no,” I translated.

Arilash smirked. “I’ll rejoice in that bit, at least. Does it mean you won’t be constantly challenging each other over who gets to mate with me next?”

“Perhaps you and Jyothky could challenge each other over who gets to mate with me,” said Osoth. “Or at least with the suspiciously silent golden-scaled abdicationer flying insufficiently far off to be utterly outside of the conversation.”

Csirnis turned his head to look at Arilash. “For my part, I shall observe the traditional forms as best as possible. I have no wish to be rude or dishonorable.”

I called to him, “I’ve never seen you be either one!” I can do mathematics, you see, and with three males to two females, mathematics calls for flirting and flattery. Besides, it’s true.

“Right. Well, where should we go now?” asked Arilash.

“Let us go somewhere civilized, where there are hovens who will provide good things for us without excessive effort on our part,” said Osoth.

“You really don’t want to do the hunting and cooking, Osoth,” said Arilash, flicking her tailtip in amusement.

“I do not. I further promise any prospective mate of mine a life painted with considerable luxury, provided by small people living and dead. And not, directly, by me,” said Osoth.

“You’re still acting like the females are in charge of the mating flight anymore,” said Nrararn.

“They are,” said Arilash.

I did more math. “I think Arilash and I each have three-twelfths of the authority, and the drakes each get two-twelfths. And in a standard mating flight, without perverts or purple rays, each dragoness gets two-twelfths. So our drakes are as in charge as dragonesses usually are.”

Arilash stared at me. “That makes nonsense, I suppose.”

“I shall not fuss in such detail about the numerology. I am fussing about cartography, or, in any case, navigation. I propose we go to Damma. Damma is a rich country, beautiful with ancient history, and fascinating with mountains and jungles,” said Osoth.

“Isn’t that the other way ’round?” asked Nrararn. “Ancient history isn’t usually beautiful.”

“Not in this instance. In any case, I suspect that Damma would be happy to supply us with spicy delicacies and civic entertainments and mountain caves in exchange for a promise to destroy any Peace Everywhere Arrays used against them during our stay, and other such minor chores,” said Osoth.

The other drakes shrugged. Nrararn said, “How about the city that Jyothky found? Dorday, wasn’t it? I’d like to see more of Trest. Especially off the battlefield. Civilization’s nice, and Trest is supposed to have lots of it.”

“Dorday is delightful. I’ll show you around,” I said. “And what I don’t know, Tarcuna does.”

Csirnis flapped his forewings. “I should be glad to see Dorday.”

Which was three votes out of five, or seven out of twelve by my axiomatization, so that’s what we did.

Our Invasion of Dorday

This deserves a full military-style summary.

The Negotiations with the Allies

«Ythac? The mating flight would like to go to Dorday. That’s your territory. Do you mind?» I wrote.

«Are any of you going to rule it — and, if so, before or after you get married?» he asked back.

«No, just being tourists.»

«Then enjoy! I will be glad to come visit now and then. I haven’t seen Dorday yet.»

The Preparations

Tarcuna was living in a hotel room not far from the Diplomatic Brigade’s offices. It was small and dingy, and I didn’t much want to come in. The curtains were dusty when I brushed them aside with my muzzle to stick my head through the window.

“Tarcuna, I would like you to come with me back to Dorday.”

“Do I have a choice?”

I had to think about that. “You can, at least, express dissent,” I said after a while.

“I’d rather negotiate.” said Tarcuna.

“Negotiate away!”

“I’m going to go visit some family and some friends. You come with me.”

“Oh, I’d be glad to,” I said.

“And you’re not to injure any of them.”

“I should be glad not to injure any more hovens,” I said.

“You are trying to be nicer than me in that. I doubt you can manage it,” said Tarcuna.

“What?”

“I imagine I’ll want to injure my mother, at least,” said Tarcuna. “I won’t injure her, and you won’t either.”

“You have an unusual style of requesting favors of dragons,” I said.

“Fine. I’ll threaten you: if you kill anyone in Dorday, you’ll have to kill me too,” said my broken hoven.

“I’m not going to kill anyone in Dorday!” I protested.

“Right, then. When do we leave?”

The Approach

We flew from Perstra to Dorday. The route was free of fighter planes and zeppelins and other hoven-built obstacles. Which doesn’t mean it was safe. Arilash cut her wing on the track of my the Scratch-the-Sky, from a long time ago.

“Subtle, subtle Jyothky, to prepare such a trap for her rival!” said Osoth.

“The wing will heal, the sky will heal. But Jyothky really needs to learn some better travel spells,” grumbled Arilash.

“I learned the Dozenwing Dozentail!” I called out.

“No. Better travel spells,” said Arilash.

Another fiancée point lost, I suppose.

The Actual Assault

The other dragons shrank down to hoven size, and landed in front of the Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium. I landed in my full size — rather amused to be towering over Arilash and Csirnis for once. Dozens of hovens left the street quickly.

“Ho, gendarmes!” I called to five of them who hadn’t left quite so quickly. “Come help me take this woman and her luggage off my back!”

“Bertrand, you go. Distract them until the street is clear,” said the squad-captain. Bertrand walked towards me slowly, as if he actually hadn’t planned to commit suicide this afternoon, and somewhat resented the opportunity to die gloriously in the service of his fellow citizens.

I sang, “I’m not killing anyone today! But take this woman off my back!”

Tarcuna waved her good arm. “Bertrand! Remember me from the Red Spire? Come help me down.”

Bertrand’s colleagues snickered. Bertrand’s fur went muddy. “Doesn’t the Red Spire promise discretion?” he muttered to her, as he opened buckles.

“Oh, I’ve quit the Red Spire,” she said lightly. “I work for Spotty now.”

“I didn’t know anyone quit the Red Spire,” said Bertrand, helping her down.

“Oh, the old rules are gone forever. I’m the first one to quit,” she said. “Not the last, I hope. It’s a horrible place.”

“It seemed pretty nice to me,” he said. “Safe, for one thing. We never had any complaints from it.”

“What was wrong, was something we couldn’t complain about.”

“What was that?”

“Cyoziworms,” she said.

“Right. Cyoziworms. I’ve been there a dozen times, and I don’t seem to be possessed,” said Bertrand.

“They are absolutely real, Bertrand. I was wormridden.”

“Get your story straight, girl. If they’re real, you don’t ‘were’ wormridden. They don’t let you go.”

Tarcuna jumped down off my back, and her hooves clattered on the pavement. “Nothing on Hove can stand against the dragons, nothing. Not our army, not cyoziworms. Nothing. Spotty saved me.” She doesn’t use that awestruck tone when she’s actually talking to us.

Bertrand glared at her, but didn’t seem to want to argue too much with five dragons watching him. “Who’s Spotty?”

I shrank to hoven-size, for better conversation. “I am. Pleased to meet you, Bertrand.”

“Um … Likewise …” he said. He stank of fear and resentment, though.

“We’re not here for blood or destruction,” I reassured him. “We’re just tourists. Just like any other visitors to Dorday.”

“… of course …” he said.

“Spotty, you’re scaring him more,” said Tarcuna, as if I couldn’t smell it. “Bertrand, thank you for the hand, and I promise that the dragons won’t be any trouble. As long as nobody antagonizes them.”

“Even the last time, I didn’t kill anyone who didn’t attack me first. And this time it would be very rude to Ythac if I did,” I added. Which helped not at all.

Avoiding Premature Detection

Osoth spread his wings. “And now that that is accomplished, I beg of you, O my stygian fiancée, to impel your courtesan to deliver us unto the divers disportments procurable in the vicinity!”

“He said ‘yes’,” said Nrararn.

“Well. I certainly didn’t say ‘no’,” Osoth affirmed, or, at least, did not deny.

I turned into my usual hoven shape. “Right! Let’s go!”

The other dragons stared at me, tails curled in distaste.

“We’ll have a much better time in hoven shape,” I said. In Grand Draconic, out of embarrassment.

The other dragons glanced at each other, not speaking, not changing.

“Really. Everything’s arranged for hovens here. Because, well, they’ve never had visitors who weren’t hoven before,” I said. “So, if you want a comfortable seat at a show, say, or a ride on the big wheel, or anything, you’ll need to be in hoven shape. And we’ll scare them less that way.”

The other dragons eyed each other.

After a moment, Csirnis put on his most diplomatic voice. “I wouldn’t say I’d never take a hoven shape on this part of the trip, but on the whole if I’m around other dragons, I’d rather look my best. It may be somewhat of a drake’s foible, or even shortcoming, and I freely admit that it is not a matter of dire rational necessity, but … forgive me. I shall assume, I have assumed, a smaller size for the sake of the natives. But the situation has not yet arisen in which I wish to give up my claws and teeth in front of my worthy adversaries Osoth and Nrararn.”

Osoth and Nrararn smirked a bit at each other to get called ‘worthy adversaries’. Nrararn said, “You know I’m not entirely averse to shapeshifting in the pursuit of tourism — I was once the gaudiest duck on all of Hove, if you recall — but for more than an hour or two, I’d rather be myself.”

“To say nothing of the risk of cyoziworms,” said Arilash. “You and Llredh both got menaced by them in a matter of days. Our drakes and you would probably be safe enough, but I don’t have any more dangersense than Llredh.”

“And no more ability to keep away from whores, too?” I snapped. In Grand Draconic, which Tarcuna never will understand. “That’s how Llredh got caught.”

“Right. Here’s your fiancée point. I think you’re still keeping score,” she said. “Though, for those who care, I haven’t mated with anyone but my fiancés since the mating flight started.” She glanced at the drakes as if challenging them to care. They did not meet her glance, though. “Or maybe I’m just as vain as a drake.”

I turned back into a hoven-sized dragon, and hissed, “And I guess there’s your fiancée point back.”

Arilash dipped her head. “Thank you. For not fighting, I mean. I’ve had too much fighting lately.”

Establishing a Beachhead

“We’d like five rooms, please,” said Tarcuna to the receptionist. “On the ninth floor, if you’ve got that many free.”

The receptionist looked at Tarcuna, and looked at us. “For … them?”

“Yes.”

The receptionist preemptively curled up crying. Management had to be called, and further reassurances had to be made.

“This would be all much easier if we look like hovens,” I reminded nobody in particular, in Grand Draconic.

“Except, of course, that in that situation we would look like hovens,” said somebody in particular that I was engaged to.

“And watching hovens squirm and whimper is fun. It’s not at all appropriate to actually threaten them, much less hurt them, but nobody can really blame us for just looking like ourselves. Especially, like ourselves only smaller,” said somebody else in particular else.

I bit somebody else in particular’s tail. Some days I don’t like dragons very much.

Most of the Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium staff ran away at that point — three of the four who hadn’t already left, that is. Our rooms were delayed by another third of an hour.

Maintaining Amicable Relationships with the Locals

“A very important thing!” I chirped, after we finally had our rooms. “The hotel ordinarily sends hovens in to clean and tend the room. I got very upset about that at first.”

“I certainly won’t have hovens poking at my hoard. Or even my bedclothes,” said Nrararn.

“Tarcuna, could you arrange with the hotel staff so they don’t go in to Nrararn’s room?”

“Nor mine,” said Arilash. “I shall ask for them when I require them.”

“I shall not fret overmuch about servants. I have endured their attentions in a previous career,” said Csirnis.

“Spotty and Csirnis yes, Nrararn and Arilash no,” said Tarcuna. “Osoth?” The necromancer didn’t answer, being in the middle of an astral conversation with a ghost. “Osoth?” She rapped on his forehead hard with her Dragon-Taming Staff. “Osoth? Are you there?”

“I am, at least, currently found somewhere on Hove’s inner surface, at approximately the present time. What is it that you wished to speak with me about, good tour guide Tarcuna?”

She had to explain again. Osoth is used to servants too, it turns out, though he is only grudgingly willing to accept living ones.

Establishing Clear Lines of Authority

Each room had a big heavy brass key. It wasn’t difficult or even notable for hoven hands to use. It wasn’t easy to manage with claws, so I had Tarcuna do it for me. Then she had to do it for the others. Except of course that Csirnis didn’t seem to have any trouble. Some days I hate Csirnis.

And then Tarcuna walked into my room and tossed her backpack on the desk. “Same arrangements as last time?”

“Did we forget to get you your own room?”

“I thought you wanted me close by for your convenience.”

“You’re the one who usually needs help. We just forgot about your room.”

“Should I go get a separate one? There’re two more rooms on this floor free. By tomorrow I’ll bet that all fourteen are open.”

I was feeling distinctly low on friends. “No, don’t bother. Same arrangements as last time.”

“Thanks, Spotty,” she said. She was probably even lower on friends than I was.

Coda

Certain facets of this plan are not working as well as I might like.

  1. Nickname: If I am going to keep going by “Spotty”, I need to remember to have spots. Fortunately none of the other dragons have spots. Not so surprising, for spots are pretty rare. Chevethna has spots, six spots on each flank. Rankotherium has two spots on his cheeks. That’s about it for dragons close to me.

    Actually, some of the older guests at my coming-of-age party had spots. It used to be high fashion for drakes to have a single stripe of spots from your foreshoulder to the end of your tail. Now it looks somewhere between frumpy and archaic.

  2. Inconspicuousness: We are simply not getting the degree of inattention as dragons that I got as a hoven. This is obvious. It is also not going to get fixed.
  3. Festivity: Last time I was here, Dorday was a city on the perpetual verge of a party. Not the whole city, really, but the tourist parts. This time, there aren’t very many tourists, and nobody is happy to see us.

Surgical Arena (Day 152)

Arilash and Tarcuna and I were eating at an early lunch at Com’ al Virtu. We were more direct than last time, and started off ordering a whole loaf of the zotanco al besti puree, and don’t bother with the crackers since they’d be more annoyingly sticky than delightfully crunchy on dragon teeth. Tarcuna scooped up a small spoonful and licked at it delicately, and Arilash and I gobbled the rest like icecream.

A pair of hovens came in, and yelped when they saw us. This happened every time, of course, but usually the hovens were staring at Arilash and me. The man of the couple was, but the woman was staring at Tarcuna, and looking utterly devastated.

Tarcuna looked back at her. “Oh, rails of the black sun. That’s Bthera!”

“Beg pardon?” asked Arilash.

“I worked with her at the Red Spires.”

Arilash said, “So she’s wormridden still?”

“Still? Unless you’ve rescued her without mentioning it to me.”

Arilash glared at the liver paté, her tailtip twitching.

Bthera and her john sat as far from us as they could: not quite all the way across the room, since the furthest tables were already taken. They ordered this and that, and started to eat it. We ordered this and that and another eight dishes besides, and devoured the ones that came first. Arilash did, grudgingly, admit that Ventelian cuisine is quite tasty.

In the middle of a sentence, Bthera suddenly squeaked, and scrambled awkwardly to our table. “Tarcuna? Is that you?”

Tarcuna’s fur wrinkled. “Yes, it is. Sorry — I had to resign from Red Spires pretty abruptly. I didn’t manage to call and tell you.”

Bthera said in a frantic voice, “Is Bopo all right?” She didn’t look much like she wanted to ask that, especially so loudly.

Tarcuna laughed a laugh of draconic cruelty. She is picking up my bad habits. “Bopo is exactly where I want him.”

Bthera looked greatly relieved. “We’ve been seeing you on television, hearing about you in the newspapers. We didn’t know what had happened with you, with Bopo.”

Tarcuna grinned. “Where I want him. Not where he wants him. What he wants doesn’t matter anymore.”

Bthera screamed in terror and despair. Arilash and I sighed: this was clearly not going to be a peaceful gourmet luncheon anymore. Bthera’s consort of the day stormed over. “Bthera, what is going on?” He turned to me. “Great dragon, please ignore this woman. She should not be bothering you. She will not bother you further.”

I glared at him. “She’s fifteen hundred thurneys a day, plus tip, right? Tarcuna, give him fifteen hundred plus tip. I’ve got a better use for Bthera than you do.”

Tarcuna looked eager. “Oh, you’re going to do that for her? Spotty, you’re so sweet! But why does he get a tip?”

“Right, no tip,” I said.

Bthera picked up the table and dumped it on top of us, and turned to flee. Her john tried to take her arm, but she threw him at Arilash with one hand. We dug out from under tablecloths and a platter of very good zotanco al besti. Arilash bit my wing in annoyance. I healed myself and flew after Bthera.

Bthera was fast. No natural hoven can run as fast as the wormridden, when they need to. With the Dozenwing Dozentail, I was faster. I caught her in the middle of Pourride Avenue. Bthera was strong. No natural hoven can kick as hard as the wormridden, when they need to. She damaged me worse than the Dozenwing Dozentail had done. I couldn’t subdue her at hoven size. She wasn’t much of a trouble at my full size, though.

“What are you going to do with her?” asked Arilash. I had accumulated quite an audience: Arilash and Tarcuna, and hundreds of hovens wondering what the right response was when an empire-killing monster tried to abduct a beautiful woman in the street. (Or, if you prefer — and I do — when a marginally-beautiful woman tried to abduct a conquersome monster in the street.)

“I am going to give Llredh a present. Or, I am going to focus him back on something worthwhile, instead of just letting him make his newly-captured hovens miserable.”

“What are you going to do to Bopo?” squeaked Bthera.

“I’ll take you and him to the hospital, where he will be revealed and destroyed, and you will be set free, Bthera.”

“A present for me too!” shouted Tarcuna.

Arilash bit my wing again. “We’re here for a mating flight, remember? You are getting distracted.”

Which is true, but cyoziworms are so disgusting.

The Hour of Biology

Bthera struggled as hard as she could, hammering on me with her fists, kicking, biting. Bopo forced her to use every bit of her body’s strength, to get away if she could. Which only meant that, when we got to Dorday Academy, she was exhausted, shaking and quivering in my hand.

“Duschafle Hall is biology,” said Tarcuna. “That building, with the dull pink spire.” The academy buildings had spires, like everywhere in Dorday, but they were more sedate. So that’s where we went.

“This young woman is wormridden. Bring out your best scientists and instruments, so that you can observe the phenomenon, and learn about it, and attest to it. When your master Llredh arrives, we will extract the cyoziworm, and save the woman,” I said. (I had written to Ythac, and Llredh was on his way.) About two dozen times, in two dozen different phrasings, to two dozen different administrators and scientists and newspaper reporters and whatnots.

Arilash looked small and annoyed for the first dozen and a half of those. That changed when we came to the Intrascopy Laboratory of the Grey Star. (Dorday Academy keeps the old tradition of identifying its rooms by painted symbols on the door, not room numbers.)

“What’s an intrascope?” she asked.

“A tool for observing a helical cross-section of a living organism,” explained Professor Wulpmegarn. He explained for another half-dozen minutes. I didn’t follow the science even well enough to write any of it down. Arilash understood a bit more, until Tarcuna cut in to try to explain it. Then we were both lost. Anyways, it’s sort of like using a very low-intensity twistor beam that mostly just draws what it encounters, rather than twisting it around.

Mostly.

“We need to get her consent before we use it on her,” said Professor Wulpmegarn. “There are inevitable side effects, ranging from the occasional short-term hematomata to the increased likelihood of long-term carcinomata. When I was a student, we were rather too casual about such matters. Now the Experimental Board is very strict.”

I heard a heavy double wingbeat in the distance. “The conqueror of your land overrules the Experimental Board.”

He settled the glass medallion of a Laboratory-Master around his grey-furred neck. “In my experience, it is, indeed, better to get informed consent from the subjects to all invasive experiments.”

“She can’t give consent. Her worm won’t let her,” said Tarcuna.

“I would never dream of arguing that cyoziworms are impossible, not in the presence of two extradimensional creatures who have exhibited undeniable powers which defy current scientific explanation. But cyoziworms are a different order. If the stories about them bear any resemblance to the truth, they are native to Hove. It is difficult to understand how such a remarkable entity could avoid detection. If nothing else, autopsies have been legal for nearly two centuries, and are frequently performed. No cyoziworms have been noticed yet.”

So we argued a bit about the reality of cyoziworms and the ability of the wormridden to avoid having their worms detected. I hate arguing with professors. I knew I was right, but I nearly got persuaded I was wrong.

Then Llredh arrived. He didn’t bother shrinking to fit the laboratory, as Arilash and I had done; he just looked through the window, and the weight of his musky smoke filled the laboratory. He listened for half a minute, and glared a bit, and said, “Prepare the intrascope.”

Professor Wulpmegarn didn’t argue any more about that.


Intrascopic Evidence

So Bthera was duly rendered unconscious by means of drugs, to add to her unconsciousness by means of exhaustion, and placed in extensive restraints, and her beautiful chest was exposed to the pale flickering violet beam of the intrascope. In minutes, a wide stream of clear tape slithered slowly out of a printer, with incomprehensible shapes outlined in intense red and green and purple on it.

Dr. Wulpmegarn took it with a well-practiced hand, and twisted it into a spiral. The outer lines took the shape of a hoven body, adequately visible through the transparent tape. The inner lines showed organs. The biologist showed us the ugly shapes of lungs and Fralian nodes and heart, pointing with the tip of a pencil held between the coils of the intragram.

Arilash was utterly delighted with the intrascope. To the point of, she’ll accept one in place of a magic ring in her mating hoard. Our remaining drakes seem distinctly pleased by this, since they’re much easier to find than magic rings on Hove.

“And I am compelled to admit that there is an anomalous body extending from the base of the brain through the chest, forking right there by the heart,” said the biologist.

“That’s your cyoziworm. Well, that’s Bthera’s cyoziworm,” I said. “Be glad it’s not yours.”

Llredh opened his mouth. Arilash spat quick fire into it. “Don’t kill her, Llredh! We’re here to kill the cyoziworm, remember? And get your subjects to believe in them. Can’t do that if you burn up the lab.”

“The sensible comment, you bring her with you, Arilash. Yet, the fury, he is large and thick within me! Not long will I allow this worm to live!”

“I would recommend that we study it further,” said Dr. Wulpmegarn.

“Is fearlessness a common sort of brain damage among hovens? Maybe one of the intrascope experiments when he was a student caused it?” I asked Tarcuna, but she didn’t know.

Llredh just hissed at the professor, “Study fast! For not long will I allow this worm to live!”

“The more we know about it, the better chance we’ll have of eradicating it altogether,” said the professor calmly. “After all, this is the first time anyone has seen scientific evidence of it.”

“Not so! I have seen it before, I have felt it drip into its little cup, I need no further evidence! Also hovens have seen them before. Even scientists!”

(Much later that evening, he told us about that. Ythac had looked around a bit with finding-spells, and uncovered dozens of fragmentary stories of scientists and natural philosophers learning somewhat about cyoziworms. They generally wound up wormridden or dead within days of their first publication, by the intentional and devoted effort of the wormridden to protect themselves. The wormridden ones, of course, immediately recanted their findings, and dedicated themselves to obscuring the truth of cyoziworms as much as possible. Ythac compelled Prof. Wulpmegarn to have a constant bodyguard.)

“And there are plenty of other cyoziworms. I can find you thirty by nightfall if you want. Which is the problem, actually. If it were the last of its kind we might be a bit more interested in science,” said Tarcuna.

“Well, let us at least perform it as a proper, if rather rushed, Observed Experiment,” said the professor.

Preparations for a Proper Observed Experiment

Getting fourteen distinguished professors of biology and medicine assembled, plus dozens of students and several reporters, was a matter of two hours’ work. Finding a place to do the vivisection was not so easy. Llredh refused to be at anything but his full size in front of his students. (Or, refused to be in a shape that cyoziworms could even remotely attack in the presence of cyoziworms, I really think.)

“Let’s use the Lecture Hall of the Balanced Parallelograms,” said Tarcuna after a while. “Llredh can look in through the window.”

“That’s not a suitable place for surgery,” said Prof. I-don’t-remember. “It’s not sterile.”

“I did this operation before,” I reminded him. “Starting on the Boulevard of the Orange Pine Trees, and ending on the roof of a bank. I’ll be using so much healing that sterility won’t matter.”

Bicker-bicker-bicker, went the surgery professors.

“You’ve seen them change size with your own eyes, you’ve seen them breathe fire and lightning and darkness on television. Why are you arguing about their healing powers?” asked Tarcuna.

Just because they can distort the laws of physics doesn’t mean that they can also distort the laws of biology, went the surgery professors.

Poke with the smallish but very sharp claw!, went Arilash.

Scream and bleed!, went Dr. Smends, the most arguesome surgery professor.

“Observe this fine injury — a textbook example of a sucking chest wound in its early stages,” lectured Arilash. “Dr. Smends, would you not agree?” Dr. Smends was perhaps less eloquent than he had been a moment before, though not actually any less noisy. “Other honored professors?” They concurred that it was, indeed, as she had specified. At least, one might well take their rush to perform first aid and/or escape as agreement. “No, don’t bother to treat it yourselves.” Arilash brushed them aside with her tail. “My assistant will demonstrate the use of astral magic to distort the laws of biology.” She looked to me.

“Assistant, nothing. Your superior in matters of healing,” I said, because fiancée points. It wasn’t hard to heal. Arilash had carefully sliced flesh, but not broken bone. I looked at the professors. “Any questions?”

Yes, they had plenty of questions, mostly along the lines of “How did you do that?” and “How could we learn to do that?” and “How can you be so violent so casually?” To which the answers are, “Astral magic” and “We are not going to give hovens any astral magic!” and “Because we can heal so easily.”

Dissection

Dr. Smends, despite being physically unhurt anymore, declined to perform the actual surgery, preferring to sit in a corner with a beaker full of brandy. Dr. Grauzeng, the most recently-hired of the surgeons, was selected to do the actual cutting. I warned her what to expect from the surgery — disintegrating bits of very poisonous worm, and the wounds constantly closing from the healing spells.

“So let’s leave the worm alive as long as possible,” said Dr. Grauzeng. “If the poison isn’t evolved until it dies.”

“Oh! We could try that,” I said. “The time I had done it, I started out killing it.”

“Sever the brain connections first. Otherwise it might wreck her brain, out of fear or fury,” said Tarcuna. So we drafted Arilash to try to render the worm insensate for the first part of the surgery — I didn’t want to fuss with that and the healing at the same time. She’s better with the Lure of Dreams than I am — anyone who’s ever cast it except for practice is better.

“And Bthera’s going to love you forever,” said Tarcuna.

“Beg pardon?”

“Well, you or Spotty. That’s the natural reaction to getting rescued from cyoziworms,” she said with a shrug.

Arilash looked out the window to peer at Llredh. “Is that right?”

Wrong, she is not. The clearer situation with Ythac, though, her I did not resent, nor reject! We were on our way there before.”

“Perhaps a single, male surgeon would be a better choice…?” said Dr. Grauzeng. “A man might find the patient appealing. I am a woman, and a married one at that.”

“Not that kind of love. More along the lines of, well, worship,” said Tarcuna. “I mean, I’d do that if Spotty asked. Or nearly anything else. But I was a public friend for a while, so that isn’t much of a problem.”

“Bthera is a public friend too,” noted Arilash.

“This topic, she brings me resentment. Resentment, she brings fire to my tongue and to my lips. Commence the surgery!” roared Llredh.

“Or maybe it doesn’t work that way for everyone. We’ve only seen it twice, and was pretty different for the two,” I pointed out, to give poor Dr. Grauzeng a bit of hope.

Dr. Grauzeng, that artist of the scalpel, went in through the cheek. Arilash stunned the worm as best she could, and Dr. Grauzeng clipped its brain-probes. The audience, watching projected images of the surgery on big screens over the table, yelped and squirmed as they saw the writhing proof of the cyoziworm’s reality.

After a bit of quick consultation, we decided to try to pull the worm out of Bthera from the top, on the hope that that would be less damaging than cutting her open from cheek to chest. I put the Small Wall into the worm — and did that ever get a bitter hiss from Llredh! — so that it wouldn’t be quite so vulnerable to tugging. Either the idea or the execution is imperfect, since the worm broke halfway out. Llredh roared in triumph, nearly making Dr. Grauzeng drop the worm back into the patient.

Which gave Dr. Grauzeng and I our time to scramble, cutting and healing in a frantic rush, like last time. This particular surgery is easier without warplanes. I think we did it in a quarter of the time, and spilled much less poison in Bthera. Taking the probes out of the brain was still very hard, and in the end we didn’t have much better choice with two of them than pull quick and heal quick and hope for the best.

After the last incision had been healed, Bthera was in much better shape than Tarcuna had been. She only needed healing every six minutes, even right after, not every minute, and by midnight it seemed safe to leave her in the hospital attended only by hovens and material medicine.

The medical aftermath was more, well, amusing. I didn’t get to see much of it, since I was tending Bthera. Arilash was in the thick of it, and told me afterwards. The doctors and biologists had recorded the whole surgery, and were pointing at a dozen pictures from it. They were discussing how the cyoziworm fit into Hove’s biology. Two biologists held forth at great length on the phylum of forkworms, a minor branch of parasitic life found in mainly in a distant continent on the Godaxle. Forkworms are hard to dissect because they melt into poisonous slush when killed. The conclusion was obvious. Llredh hissed and fumed, trying to decide if he would destroy the entire phylum or just the cyoziworms.

Results of the Experiment

Several of the doctors, at the same time, were discussing how sure they were that they were seeing the etiology of Chapifou’s Lesion — a large, horrible lesion of the interior of the throat and chest, cause previously unknown, only discovered during autopsies of (usually) patients who were generally asymptomatic before death. “Because, if dying cyoziworms really do cause Chapifou’s Lesion, we’ve got a great deal of epidemiological information about them. There must be tens of thousands of case records … a wealth of facts, now that we know what we’re seeing,” said Prof. Wulpmegarn.

Prof. Grauzeng fiddled with a slide rule. “That operation took, let us say, a quarter of a day. Eight dragons for healing, assume we can work them full time and speed the matter up manyfold … that’s a hundred cyoziworms a day. How many are there?”

“Tens of thousands in Trest alone. I’m sure they can reproduce faster than that. Even if you could get all the dragons to work,” said Tarcuna.

“Which you can’t,” said Arilash. “I’ll do a few, maybe, as a favor to Jyothky or Llredh, but not my share of a hundred a day.”

“Pretty hopeless,” said Tarcuna, and flopped into a chair miserably.

Llredh’s angry, despairing red breath was a column of consuming fire reaching many miles into the night sky, and brought fear to grands of hovens and meltation to a section of the side of Duschafle Hall. I bit his tail. He kicked my head and crushed the side of my skull. Nothing worth noting there.

“We shall have to find another approach,” said Dr. Wulpmegarn. “No brilliant ideas come to mind instantly … but half a day ago I should have believed the problem wholly fictional. I’m sure that there is some reasonable answer around, waiting for us to find it.”

“Take not overlong! If I cannot heal them, I shall kill them. My revenge, she will come!”

Twelve Dooms (Day 158)

“I need a favor from you,” said Tarcuna, looking upset, fur all bristly and everything.

“He-or-she is as good as dead,” I told her. I was rather upset too. The Dorday Museum of Art and Culture had somehow gotten a great deal more tedious since my previous visit. The means by which it had accomplished this feat were not so clear, since none of the exhibits had changed. The company had, though. Osoth was far more aware of the vagaries and idiosyncracies of hoven cultural history than I was then, and than I am now, and he didn’t have very much good to say about the museum. And, since it was a mating flight event, Tarcuna was not allowed to come, despite that she’s a highly-trained professional companion capable of making amusing conversation without the slightest sign of stress or strain. I didn’t actually bite Osoth or anything, but Arilash did invite him to couple instead of seeing the second half of the museum. Sex with her trumped Hoven art and culture with me. Which I would expect from Llredh or Nrararn, but this was Osoth.

“What? No, no, you are not to kill anyone!” said Tarcuna.

“Not one of Ythac’s anyones, certainly, which is everyone but you in Dorday. What favor do you want?”

“Do you remember Prof. Wulpmegarn?” she asked.

I glared at her. “I am totally incapable of remembering the person in whose laboratory we spent most of a day recently. Stupid lizard, me. Didn’t get enough museums as a hatchling.”

“Well, you’re certainly in a mood. Prof. Wulpmegarn is going to present the Twelve Troubles Report to Ythac. If he can get your protection, which is what I’m asking you for.”

I spread my ears. “What’s a Twelve Troubles Report, and why does he need protection?”

Tarcuna climbed onto the chest of drawers so she could be taller than me. “When Ythac took over the country, he asked some professors to tell him the twelve most troublesome troubles facing the nation. They’ve been fussing about the list — they mostly have it, but they’re afraid to tell Ythac. So they asked Wulpmegarn, since you seemed to like him and they thought you might be willing to keep Ythac from killing him,” said Tarcuna.

“I don’t see the problem. I’ve killed lots more hovens than Ythac. He teases me about it, even.”

“I know that, but something in the report is going to upset him. Will you help?”

“Sure, I’d be glad to. It’ll get me away from my fiancés a bit more. That’s got to be good.”

Ythac’s court in Perstra was now a very large tent, on a very large and very muddy avenue. He, himself, sat on a dais which seemed to be made from boards resting on the raised stone flower planters that had once adorned the sidewalk. Llredh had had a similar dais, which was now a tumble of scattered planks and overturned planters. Which may have been the reason that Llredh was not there.

“Ythac, the splendor of your throne room rivals all description,” I told him.

“I know, I know. The hovens of the old regime didn’t get around to building proper state facilites. I tried using the Cauldron of Roses Havocs Arena. This is better,” he said ruefully.

“What was wrong with the stadium?”

He drooped his ears. “Well, the smell, first of all. Hoven sweat, beer, and used beer. Not the atmosphere I wanted to present for my enlightened and dignified reign. And of course when I cancelled a havocs game, the hovens all rioted.”

“I suppose this is better. Anyhow, I’m here to see your Twelve Troubles get read. And make sure you don’t kill Prof. Wulpmegarn.”

He breathed fire at me. “I am not going to kill anyone!” He wasn’t very upset though, or he’d have breathed darkness.

“Hey! I presume that hurt! Also you’d better be careful, or you’ll burn your replacement temporary court down.”

He drooped. “I suppose I had better get some hovens on to building the permanent one. Out of stone and metal.”

“Shall I get you your helpful and nicely-warded professor now?”

Ythac blinked at me. “He rode in on you? What are you anymore, a bodyguard and a taxi service for hovens?”

“I carried him in a brass car that used to be part of the Wheel of Iron in a Dorday amusement park, I’ll have you know. A spare one, to be sure, but I certainly hadn’t paid for it.” Which I had, as an easy way to not crush him.

Prof. Wulpmegarn adjusted his formal robes, resettled his glass medallion, and brushed at a spot of his grey forehead where the fur might have been infinitesmally out of line. “I suppose there’s no more delaying it,” he said. “You say that Lleredh is not here?”

“His name is Llredh, just one ‘e’, and he’s not.”

“A pity. He seemed relatively peaceful, at least compared to that tan monster in the surgery,” said Prof. Wulpmegarn. I stared at him; anyone who thinks Llredh is more peaceful than Arilash hasn’t been paying much attention. Wulpmegarn shrugged and added, “Or at least, inclined in my favor as well, while I am researching cyoziworms for him.”

Ythac’s court didn’t have very many courtiers. A dozen or so hovens: I recognized Rev. Dreyrey and Larella Spargee. A dozen gendarmes in fancy uniforms, I have no idea why. Ex-Archon Shuvanne wearing a quite soiled formal suit, swinging in an iron cage in the middle of the court. A dozen reporters from various Magic Horns. A big empty space where Llredh sometimes sits, which I took for myself.

And one rather nervous professor. “Well, your committee has asked me to deliver their report,” he said. “Please be aware that I didn’t have very much to do with it, though I was quite active in the sudden inclusion of item eight.”

“Perhaps you could start with item one? I am eager to start fixing the country that my true love has given to me,” said Ythac.

“Right.” He smelled terrified. “Item one. According to your select committee on the major troubles facing Trest, item one is, that Trest was just conquered by monsters from another universe.”

Shuvanne laughed, a loud and rather crazed laugh. “They got you pegged, Ythac! Of all the problems here, you’re the worst!”

I flicked him with my hukuchô. “Quiet, murderer of my fiancé!” He screamed and struggled to escape me, which only made his cage sway wildly.

Ythac reared ’til his spikes brushed the tent, and hissed a terrible hiss. “All of you, be quiet! Jyothky, please do not torment the former regime any more. I thought you were here to protect hovens, anyways.”

Fortunately I can’t lose fiancée points with Ythac anymore.

Prof. Wulpmegarn looked at Ythac. “Shall I proceed?”

Ythac laughed. “You weren’t expecting to get past the first point? I know exactly what punishment to impose upon you.” Prof. Wulpmegarn whined and groveled. Ythac sneered, “Finish your list. Your punishment shall come after it is done. But don’t delay, or I will increase it.”

I hissed at Ythac in Grand Draconic, “I promised him safety!”

Ythac hissed back in Grand Draconic, “It’s not that kind of punishment!”

Prof. Wulpmegarn looked at me helplessly. I smiled at him — I hope he can recognize the gesture as friendly, it’s a lot fangier than a hoven smile — and told him to go on. So he did. “Second trouble is the increasing noxiousness of the lower air, particularly around our more industrial regions. The causes of this are straightforward: smoke from the burning of wood, dust from mining and milling, toxic vapors from bleaching, curing, and various other industrial processes. Cleaning the air without destroying Trestean industry has been a troublesome and difficult puzzle.”

Ythac nodded. “The air is, indeed, not as sweet as in the Khamrou Mountains in Ghemel. Jyothky, do you feel the need to defend the professor from my lack of a fury about that answer? No? Prof. Wulpmegarn, pray continue.”

“Third is a widespread economic weakness, which the recent troubles have done nothing to improve,” said Prof. Wulpmegarn. He didn’t have as much to say about economics as biology. “Fourth is military: our soldiers are arguably overtaxed by too many peacekeeping efforts in too many places. Fifth is also military: our soldiers are thoroughly demoralized by your war of conquest, and their losses in the Mystery Zone in Ghemel.”

Ythac chuckled. “It wasn’t a war of conquest, just a war of punishment. Llredh conquered you on his own, so we had to stop the war. And it’s not a mystery zone. It’s an undead paingod from Mhel.”

“I am a biologist, untrained in such matters,” the professor protested.

“You are, at the moment, reading a summary report, not lecturing in detail on any of the topics. Pray go on.”

“Sixth is the decrease in the intensity of the light of Virtuet, by approximately 1.28% over the last century. If, indeed, this is an actual decrease in intensity of sunlight rather than a measurement error of a century ago; I admit to some doubt about this issue. Still, if the main sun and the epicenter of divine light is going out, for whatever physical or religious reasons, we are in rather a lot of trouble. Or our grandchildren will be,” said Prof. Wulpmegarn. “Seventh is a joint problem, of increasing noxiousness in our rivers and seas, and a concomitant decline in the quantity and wholesomeness of fish and seafood. Eighth, of course, is the cyoziworms, though the precise dimensions and difficulty of the matter are far from certain. Ninth is the increase in apostasy and religious schism, threatening the religious foundations of the country. Tenth is resurgence of krasthic plague in the Estagnion region. Eleventh is the depletion of various raw materials worldwide, including tantalum, vrexium, and copper. Twelfth is the rising economic and cultural power of various other countries, including Damma and Vlechinse.”

Ythac nodded. “That’s quite a list. Well, I declare the first (dragons), fifth (military morale), ninth (apostasy), and twelfth (other countries) to be problems of hoven perception. You think they are bad. I think they are good, unimportant, silly, and unimportant, in that order. So here is your punishment: figure out the next-worst four troubles facing Trest, to replace the four that I have eliminated, and one more besides as actual punishment for being obnoxious about the conquest.”

He smiled benevolently, and spread his glorious wings. “And next, we must start thirteen studies on how how to solve these matters. These study groups must not be limited to hoven abilities alone. Llredh will surely assist with the cyoziworm issue, and perhaps the water toxicity issue as well, as he enjoys that sort of thing. We don’t need the sort of military that was necessary a few weeks ago: no country or countries in Hove can stand against two dragons. We might be able to persuade the sky-mage Nrararn to improve the air, at least for a few years.” He beamed. “And in a dozen years or two, these problems will be gone! Thus it is when dragons rule!”

I’m glad Ythac is ruling Trest. He’ll be the best overlord ever, I’m sure.

Wheel of Iron (Day 162)

Punishing the Innocent

Tarcuna, Csirnis, and I were eating at Porphirio’s. We knew How It Is Done At Porphirio’s, and, being polite alien invaders and native collaborators, politely asked waiters to carry all our plates and planned to leave a few extra thurnies at the end of the meal. Politeness did not seem to help very much. The waiters were awkward and haphazard, and spilled a large bowl of hot pea soup on Tarcuna out of very intentional carelessness. I’ve healed her of worse than minor burns, of course. And, since they’re not our hovens, and Csirnis is as Uplifty as my mother, we demonstrated just how fearsome and dreadful we monsters are by giving them a very small tip afterwards.

As usual, Tarcuna ate a modest breakfast for a hoven, and got a copy of the Magic Horn of Dorday to entertain Csirnis and me with as we ate a tiny breakfast with tiny bites. She looked at the front page. Her fur went miserably muddy, and she read intently, silently.

“What’s the news? You look stung!”

She pried her head away from the words. “The gendarmes raided the Red Spire and took my friends to prison. Three of them died, my friends I mean, and some gendarmes too. Can I read it all and find out who and how?”

I spread my forewings. “Certainly. And I will interrogate Ythac about it. With my claws if need be!” And that got some serious staring from the rest of the diners. Not the proper sort of staring that subjects should stare when one threatens their beloved ruler with injury, unfortunately.

Tarcuna finished her reading, and set the paper by her plate. “This is bad, this is terrible.” So we asked her to explain.

“Last night, the gendarmes arrested lots of us. Wormridden, I mean, from all over Dorday. All of the Red Spires, the deputy mayor, everyone I know,” she said. “They argued, demanded their legal rights, saying they weren’t wormridden anyways and even if they were it’s not a crime. Somehow the gendarmes got the idea of intrascoping them. They dragged them all to Dr. Wulpmegarn. Elesma went second, and she said she’d be quiet, but she struggled and twisted when they turned the intrascope on. Moving during the intrascoping must have injured her worm and spilled its poisons. She died before the intrascoping was done. And Tiri was sedated, but she died before she even got into the intrascope. We’d always said that sedation was very dangerous for wormridden; worms live in blood, and drugs can kill them so easily.”

“Oh, that’s a pair of sorrows,” I said, and curled my tail around Tarcuna’s shoulders.

She sniffled a bit, and continued. “When the other wormridden saw that, they went berserk. They’d have had to, their worms would make them try anything to survive. The Magic Horn didn’t give a lot of details. The deputy mayor got one of the gendarmes’ twistor pistol and used it and killed six of them — or maybe everyone did, I’m not sure. They shot him back and killed him. Oh, and Dr. Wulpmegarn’s laboratory got ruined, too.”

“That’s rather a disaster,” said Csirnis sympathetically. “Is there anything to be done, do you think? We can scold Ythac and Llredh; I do not think it is what they want!”

So I wrote a note to Ythac about it.

«I know, Jyothky. Llredh is furious. He’s given orders that the gendarmes never use intrascopes on the wormridden ever again.»

«That’s won’t help Elesma, though, will it?» My letters were all slashy in my imagination, and probably worse in his.

«No, it won’t. We’re still trying to figure out how to use the hovens for Llredh’s revenge. Ha! You should have seen the chief-of-gendarmes’ face when we told him he was going to be hunting cyoziworms. Even after the demonstration, hovens aren’t believing them.»

Tarcuna went to the deathyard to say farewell to Elesma. The rest of us didn’t, but there should have been plenty of actual amusement to do in a tourist city like Dorday, shouldn’t there?

Guardian of the Wheel of Iron

After breakfast, we went to the St. Cheerior Amusement Park. Tarcuna and I had spent an afternoon when I was here before, and I had enjoyed it a lot.

This time … well, the amusements were pretty much the same. The spirals spun, the balls bounced, and the whirligigs were ready to ride. There weren’t very many hovens around to ride them though. Perhaps a few dozen, in a park which had held a few grand the last time I was here.

The centerpiece of St. Cheerior Amusement Park is the big wheel. It’s a very big vertical wheel, a massive thing of iron and wood and glittery brass cages for hovens to ride in, built in earlier days when hovens knew some technology but not all that they know now. A heavy iron engine by its side somehow burns wood and boils water and turns it around. Not terribly fast; this isn’t a whirligig ride. I could levitate up faster than the big wheel turns. Of course hovens can’t levitate, or get into the sky in all that many ways, so the big wheel is perhaps the easiest way to see all Dorday spread beneath you like a very spiky picnic. When I was here before, the lines for the big wheel took a third of an hour.

“Let’s go up on the Big Wheel!” I said.

“Ooh, we can get stuffed in a little iron cage and hoisted around to shallow heights much more slowly than we can fly!” said Arilash. She flapped her wings. “Let’s go!” She and I had been determinedly mocking each other all morning, in best Mating Flight style.

So we went, or tried to.

With the park so empty, there were no lines, for the big wheel or anything else. A bored-looking hoven boy sat by the ticket booth, with an older hoven, just as bored, tending the engine.

“Give us five tickets,” said Arilash to the boy. “Here’s the fifteen thurnies.”

The boy smelled of terror. He pushed the money back at her. “No.”

“Beg pardon?” said Arilash.

“No. No dragons allowed.” said the boy.

“What?”

“No dragons allowed. This is for hovens only,” he said.

The engineer said, “Dakko, let me take care of this,” and stepped to the ticket booth. The boy scuttled behind the engine. “Well, sir dragon, this wheel’s only for people. No dragons.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Arilash. “Your country is ruled by dragons now.”

“That’s as may be, sir. I ain’t in charge of the country. I am in charge of the big wheel. And as long as I’m in charge of it, no dragons go riding it nohow.”

“Would you deny Ythac, your master?” she hissed.

“Yes, sir, I’d deny that Ythac is my master. I’m a free man, I am. I don’t have a master. I’ve got an archconsul, to be sure. An archconsul who’s a coward and an idiot for surrendering, but we elected him and no dragon is going to come say that he’s not ours,” said the engineer.

“Except for Llredh, of course,” I added.

The engineer glared at me. “I said Shuvanne’s a coward, to give up so easy. Me, I ain’t no coward.”

“You don’t have a dragon’s claw rammed through your chest,” I pointed out.

“You do that, sir. Kill me if you like, go right ahead. You’re still not getting a ride on the big wheel from me,” said the engineer, stinking of fear and gleaming with bravery.

“It would be ungracious to kill this man,” said Csirnis in Grand Draconic. “Even if it were not Ythac and Llredh’s territory.”

“I’m not going to!” I hissed back at him.

I stared at the engineer. He frowned at me. “Well, you’ve got no business here. Go away.”

I glared at him. I was awfully offended. Of course I couldn’t kill him or hurt him very much without poaching against Ythac and thinking much worse of myself. Maybe a flick of hukuchô? But driving him off didn’t sound helpful, and he certainly didn’t deserve the torture anyways. Maybe arguing that I was helping the hovens, but I wasn’t sure I could persuade myself of that, much less one of them. So I just glared.

“Observe the might of Jyothky! She is currently having her tail handed to her by an unarmed, feeble hoven,” said Arilash.

“Because I was helping you!” I squeaked.

“I didn’t need help. I know what to do,” she said to me in Grand Draconic. In Trestean, she hissed at the engineer, “Your meagre Hoven obstinacy cannot prevent me from riding the wheel!” She leapt into the air and circled over us, hissing. “Come on, come on! We all must conquer this wheel!”

So the drakes flew after her to the top of the wheel. I blinked at the engineer, and joined them. We sat on top of a glittering cage, which swayed and wobbled under our weight. The wheel turned slowly. When the one cage with hovens in it came to be the bottom, the engineer stopped the wheel and let them out. They fled. The engineer glared at us, and left the wheel still. So we flew back to the top car, and sat on it for a third of an hour as the engineer told everyone about us.

After we had been there long enough to declare victory, we flew back to our hotel, and sat in the lobby while doleful or angry hovens watched us darkly.

Language of Serpents (Day 167)

“What should I wear to visit your mother?” I asked Tarcuna.

She finished buckling her green leather belt with the big pouch around her waist, then burrowed around in the suitcases of clothes and personal effects she had taken from Red Spires, which were now taking up most of our hotel room. “Here, try this on!” she said as she tossed me a tangle of black straps and sequins.

It didn’t seem significant to either vision or dangersense. I dodged away from it anyways. “What is it?”

“It matches your scales!”

“So does the night sky, and I don’t wear that,” was the only reasonable answer.

“The night sky doesn’t match your scales,” she pointed out. “It’s green and orange and brown and blue and white. You are black. Black is not any of those colors.” I obviously can’t even keep track of which universe I’m in.

“Well, it’s black where I come from,” I said. “How am I supposed to wear this, anyways?”

“You can’t, not without turning into a hoven first. And don’t do that. It’s a very practical private working garment from my old job. Even when I was wormridden I wouldn’t wear it in public.”

I poked the thing with a claw. It didn’t react. I’m sure it was just biding its time to strike. “What do you want me to look like when we visit your mother?”

“Nothing.”

She can be a very confusing hoven. “You don’t want me there?” I asked.

“Oh, I want you there. I want you invisible.” Tarcuna asked.

“That works better when I’m flying. On the ground I run into things. That makes everyone suspicious,” I said. Spells like the Esrret-Sky-Painted and the Pyerthu’s Spare Hallucination are a vaguely useful trick now and then. But they don’t work very well where it counts the most: other dragons can’t see you, but they can find you with any of a dozen other senses. You’ve made yourself look like a fountain of glitter to magioception, on the off chance you didn’t have any spells on otherwise.

“Well, I don’t want my mother to know I’ve brought a dragon for backup,” Tarcuna said. “It would be embarrassing.”

I turned into a tri-colored ribbon snake and slithered into Tarcuna’s belt pouch. “I suppose that will do,” she said. “Now for the harder question, of what I should wear? I’d take the peach tunic, but … do you have any spells for sewing clothes up instantly, Jyothky?”

I peeked out at the tunic. “I don’t. Is it torn? It doesn’t look torn.”

“It’s got a flap for Bopo to stick out. I am not going to wear any clothes like that ever again,” she stated inexorably. “But everything shocking is like that, or is too indecent to wear outdoors.”

“You’re trying to shock her?” I wondered.

“When she disowned me, she was vicious and vehement about the sort of life I’d be leading and how bad it would be for her social standing. As if the only reason I’d fall in love with Kangbok was to trouble her. She was sort of right about that.” (Which was a lie, but I count it as storytelling.) “So it would be only gracious to show her how right she was. And if I happen to be bad for her social standing in the process, well, that’s just more evidence she was right, isn’t it?”

I peered up at her. She looks a good deal more imposing when one is a tiny snake. “Is that how you’re supposed to treat your mother?”

“I’m picking etiquette up from you.”

I blinked at her. Which works very badly with transparent eyelids. “I don’t treat my mother like that.”

“I’ve never seen you with your mother. You treat hovens like that. I’m your catspaw. What do you expect from me?”

“Obedience and moral guidance, maybe?”

She flicked my chin with a fingertip, hard enough to presumably hurt. “Not likely.” She stared at her clothes, and picked something red and orange and not as revealing as she wanted.

I let my catspaws get away with far too much, don’t I?

Tarcuna’s Ancestral Home

Tarcuna’s family certainly had some status to lose. Their home was a substantial three-floor mansionlet on the side of a big park. Heavy oak trees guarded the front door, and flowering ivy dripped off the walls. A stone hoven danced on the back of a stone turtle in a little pond, and water dripped from her spread hands.

“Great-grandpa made his money in cans, you know,” said Tarcuna as she tugged on the doorbell.

“I don’t know. I don’t even understand,” I said. “Was he in a can? Or did the money come to him in cans? The Word-Fox doesn’t list that as an expression of abundance, but it’s not a very good fox with metaphors.”

Tarcuna said, “Neither of those. He invented a way to boil canned food quickly, and made a lot of money. We still —-”

A hoven man opened the door. His fur matched Tarcuna’s, red with grey stripes, though he wore his hair short and his bathrobe long. “Yes… Tarcuna? Is that you?”

“Your very own daughter, in the flesh.”

“Who were you talking to?” he asked.

Tarcuna stomped one hoof. “Not ‘Welcome home, dear child!’? Not even ‘Go away, you disgusting monster!’?”

“Come in, come in. I am glad to see you.” Tarcuna’s father held the door open, a corridor into a private universe full of knickknacks, bagatelles, flummeries, objets d’art, thingamajigs, whatnots, baubles, bric-a-brac, and novelties, but absolutely not a single whimsy. As Tarcuna walked through, he took her in his arms for a close hug. She tensed at first, and then hugged him back. Which left me, in the purse, rather squashed. A real snake might have been upset. My apotropaics are proof against paternal affection.

“Who is it, Mogen?” called a woman from deeper into the house.

“Tarcuna’s come back to us, Vetha!” Mogen answered.

Vetha came running, her hooves thumping dully on the antique carpet, her braid of red hair thumping on her back, her stench of confusion and anger all about her for anydragon who has a working tongue to smell. She glared at her daughter, and said, “You’ve been in the news lately.”

Tarcuna extricated herself from her father’s embrace, shoved past her parents, and sat in a big puffy chair with threadbare green upholstery in the parlor. I poked my head out of the bag and looked at walls full of dusty-framed photographs of self-important hovens, and stained glass lamps depicting three of the four suns. “Doing my part for the family reputation.”

“I’ll have you know that everyone thinks you’re being simply dreadful. Treason, they call it, and I can’t say I disagree,” said Vetha.

“Working with the government of Trest is treason? Or maybe it’s treason to be working to keep the dragons from killing too many more of us. Or perhaps it’s the bit about trying to get rid of the soul-stealing worms that’s the problem?” said Tarcuna.

“Getting monsters to conquer your country is treason, dear,” said Vetha, sneering a bit.

Tarcuna laughed. “I don’t have that kind of influence. I have kept them from burning a few cities and everyone in them, though. So if you really care about your reputation, you can tell everyone I’ve been more effective protecting us from the dragons than anyone else. Than everyone else put together, even.”

Vetha hissed, “What do you want here, Tarcuna?”

“To see you and Dad again. See if you’re ready to forgive me for the little things you disinherited me for, now that I’m a hero of the nation and all,” said Tarcuna. She was lying.

“I don’t think that’s exactly right, Tarcuna,” interjected Mogen. “The newspapers have not yet chosen to reveal that side of your saga.”

“Tarcuna! You started out as a pervert, then became a whore, and now a traitor and collaborator with the dragons!” said Vetha. “I’m at a loss for what you’ll come up with for an encore.”

“Apostasy, probably. After the worm ate me I stopped going to services,” said Tarcuna.

Mogen mumbled, “After moving in with a tappu lover, and a girl at that? The only think keeping you from apostasy proceedings is the lax state of religious record keeping and enforcement nowadays.”

“That plus a large black dragon in my pocket should just about do it, though,” said Tarcuna. “I should try to talk Llredh into repealing the apostasy laws. They’re pernicious laws anyways.”

“Why did you do it, Tarcuna? Why did you do it to us?”, cried Vetha.

“I didn’t do it to you. Kangbok I did to me. After she kicked me out, I had less than a week of free will before Elesma’s worm got me. After that I wasn’t thinking about you at all, or about myself either.”

Vetha was twisting a heavy tassle in her hands, and looking quite uncomfortable. “Lying isn’t a big addition to your list of crimes, Tarcuna. I suppose you might think you can’t dishonor yourself any more deeply. But that nonsense about cyoziworms isn’t even a very good lie. Nobody believes it. If I were you, I should just just say, ‘I needed money, so I took up the one trade that my natural inclinations suited me for and led me to.'”

Tarcuna frowned. “Let us leave aside the question about just why I needed money, when, after all, my parents haven’t yet managed to squander all of grandpa’s inheritance yet. Actually I didn’t need money that much. I was a waitress at Billy’s. But you really ought to believe about the worms. It’s true.”

“It’s preposterous,” said Vetha.

“It’s true. Prof. Wulpmegarn and lots of others saw them. That was in the paper too.”

“My dear Tarcuna!” Vetha’s adjective made my veriception sneeze. “There were three dragons in the room. Including the one who tortured Archconsul Shuvanne into surrendering the country! I should imagine that your Wulpmegarn would have been quite glad to swear to the papers that Virtuet is dark and Curset is light!” She sat up a bit straighter. “If he’s not an cunya altogether!”

“That’s not a word I approve of in the presence of my daughter,” said Mogen.

“What does it mean, anyways? It sounds almost like a certain rude word for one of the nicest parts of a woman’s body,” said Tarcuna.

“And it sounds almost like the last half of your name, which is where it comes from,” said Vetha. “And what it means is, a collaborator with the dragons. I don’t know for sure everything you’ve done, but I do know you’ve given us that word.” She crossed her legs primly. “At least you had the good luck not to use the family name for it.”

Tarcuna picked up a stained-glass lamp in her good hand, and threw it clumsily at the photographs on a wall. “And you aren’t so much a mother as an earthly incarnation of the Lady of Peppers.”

“We’ll have no more of that, young lady,” said Vetha. “Now get out of my house, and go back to your dragons, and stop troubling decent people anymore.”

They tossed a few more insults back and forth, with Mogen waving his arms and trying to calm them down. Neither one wanted to be calmed, though. Theirs was an old fight, and a bitter one.

“And how, exactly, are you keeping those dragons in line? The Magic Horn says you’re sharing a hotel room with one of them! I think that the implications of that word ‘cunya’ are very precise in your case, My Daughter the Traitor Whore!”

“I am doing no such thing!” said Tarcuna. Veriception said she was lying. Memory, of course, said she was telling the truth. I resolved to ask her about that, though I haven’t, yet. “I shan’t stay here and be insulted!” She got up, kicked the chair over, and clomped through the front door.

“If the truth is an insult, you are certainly living your life wrong!” shouted Vetha after her, sounding glad to get the last word.

Tarcuna pulled me out of her pouch. “Did I say something about you shouldn’t kill my mother? I didn’t mean it.” She was lying, but not very much.

I coiled around her wrist. “Yes, you did mean it. And even if you didn’t, I’m not killing people for your convenience. If you want them dead, you can do it yourself.”

“I’m almost tempted. I come back trying to apologize and make up, and she starts with the insults,” lied Tarcuna.

I didn’t much want to argue with her about that. “Try again in a few years. Once Ythac gets to work, being the dragons’ ally won’t seem like such a bad thing.”

Fortunately Tarcuna doesn’t have veriception.

More Storming Off

“I thought you said Dorday was fun,” said Arilash in a rather whiny voice, in Petty Draconic. She was draped artistically over Csirnis in the lobby of the Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium. They had been up to something more appropriate for a mating flight than what I had been doing with Tarcuna, from the smell of it.

“It was fun, the first time I was here,” I protested. I was myself again, or rather the small-sized version of myself that I was using for this leg of the trip.

“I’m afraid that it’s coming off as a bit awkward socially,” said Csirnis. He gave me a big golden smile, with barbels spread.

“Your display of beauty will not help you!” I hissed at him. “I still recognize that you are not pleased with my choice of city!”

Osoth crept from behind a potted fake tree. “Indeed, a strange restlessness has fallen thickly upon us all, with you as the sole exception. Now, the phantoms of departure beckon us onward, forward, farward to some distant realm wherein we may, perhaps, find something closer to the heart’s desire.”

That earned him a lightning bolt. Just a tiny one, but the accompanying thunderclap sent the hoven hotel staff scurrying away and even got Tarcuna to frown. “I’m supposed to be your heart’s desire. Or Arilash if your heart desires sharing.”

Osoth looked hurt. “One may acquire the occasional misconception about what is desire for me, and what is tactics. Case in point: I desire to act honorably; thus I hold to promises made for tactical reasons in a very different situation.”

“He said ‘no’,” Arilash translated.

“It is far from obvious that I did. Indeed, it is far from obvious what ‘no’ might mean, under the circumstances,” Osoth clarified. Unclarified, actually.

“Dorday’s not going to get much better,” said Nrararn, on the hotel’s registration desk. “The Magic Horn said that tourism is down by 90% from this time last year.”

“How much is that in real numbers?” asked Arilash.

Nrararn tightened his wings to concentrate on the math. “Ten and three-quarters twelfths. The whole country is scared, and people don’t want to go away from home in case some extra disaster happens. By ‘disaster’ they mean ‘dragons’. Especially they don’t want to come here, since according to the Magic Horn, Dorday is crawling with dragons.”

“More room for us, then,” I said.

“More closed attractions, and more resentment from the hovens running the ones that are open,” said Csirnis softly.

I had obviously gotten outmaneuvered again, with the whole rest of the mating flight deciding on what to do next without mentioning it to me. Getting out without bleeding fiancée points all over the Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium lobby was going to be hard. I wrote a quick urgent note to Ythac, and got back a quick urgent answer. “Patthakadu, then?”

Arilash peered at me. “What does that mean? What language is that, even?”

“It’s a big city in northern Damma. Also it’s a big forest and game preserve,” I said, sounding just as if I had investigated the whole of Damma thoroughly and picked the best place after much careful consideration. Actually I had picked the best place, I just didn’t know why. «Thank you, Ythac, for your finding spell!»

Everydragon blinked at me. “You want to go? We thought you’d want to stay in Dorday.”

“Dorday’s only a good tourist spot if you’re clever and skillful enough to blend in with the hovens, to win their trust and lull them into complacency!” I explained. “As I did last time.” I count that as winning a few fiancée points, or at least losing fewer.

Tarcuna gave me a very odd look. “What are you say you are hoven?” She was trying to speak Petty Draconic, and making a total hash of it.

“We’re going to leave Dorday. I am trying to talk the others into going to Patthakadu, in Damma,” I said. The other dragons nodded — yay, I had my fiancée points! If anyone else was keeping any score anymore, which I don’t think they were, since I’m the only one who had even started out doing it.

What I gained in fiancée points, I lost in loyal minion points. Tarcuna looked rather hurt. “I haven’t seen Kangbok yet.”

“Then stay and see her,” said Nrararn. “This isn’t your mating flight, after all. If Jyothky wants a servant, well, there are grands upon grands of people in Damma, most of them terribly poor and eager to get hired.”

“She’s not my servant exactly. More of a minion,” I said. “If I wanted a servant, I’d get one with two working arms.”

“If you were better at healing magic, I’d have two working arms,” said Tarcuna.

“If I were better at healing magic, I’d start by fixing your broken psyche, so you’d have the least bit of caution back. And better sense about insulting dragons.”

Tarcuna shrugged. “It’s all borrowed time anyways. Do I get time to pack at least?”

“Go pack now, if you want to come with us. We’re still deciding where to go.”

Patthakadu, of course.

Patthakadu (Day 169)

Damma wanted us.

Also, of course, Damma didn’t want us.

Damma is a very big country, larger and more diverse than Trest. It has the Chidana mountains, huge and vicious, against which the Khamrou range would be small and very innocent foothills. It has the flood plains of the Mumtarry river and its many tributaries, so green with corn and mustard, beans and cabbages and the thousand spices of Dammese cooking that they can be seen from the other side of the sky. Patthakadu and Tethettha are cities as urban and sophisticated as Dorday and Perstra, at least in the wealthier quarters. Bhalata is ancient and holy, and the huts of the gods are unchanged since the earliest days.

And the politics is just as messy. The Mother Spice Party is more or less on top of the country, ruling with occasional stunning flashes of adequacy. The SNKVhH — a few people told me what that stands for, but I can’t remember — opposes Mother Spice at every turn. Fifty-eight registered minority parties swap back and forth between the two main poles at their convenience. Then there are the religious parties. Damma has lots of religious parties. Damma has lots of religions, each of them with lots of gods, some of whom are the same as other gods. I don’t think that even the Dammans have a very good idea of everything going on in Damma.

Fortunately, we’re not trying to understand Damma, or even rule Damma. We’re just trying to get official permission to use Patthakadu and environs for a few years.

Our approach was straightforwardness itself:

  1. Fly from Dorday towards Patthakadu.
  2. Realize halfway there that we might want to warn them first.
  3. Ask Ythac to have what’s left of his Diplomatic Brigade send them a message.
  4. Spend two and five-twelfths hours trying to calm Ythac, apologize to Ythac, and otherwise get Ythac to understand that we’re not actually tossing him into the volcano of his husband and his country all by himself.
  5. I (carrying Tarcuna) fly back to Perstra, while Arilash and the drakes go to Patthakadu.
  6. I stay up very late talking with Ythac about nothing in particular. We actually sleep together, in a somnolent but not adulterous sense. Llredh, according to Ythac, finds something else to amuse himself with.
  7. Csirnis somehow talks the Spice Mother Party and the SNKVhH into provisionally letting us stay in Patthakadu with official blessing. I do not think that anyone specifically points out quite how imposing it will be to have five of the seven dragons on Hove living in their country. The official blessing is conditional on some sort of religious test, in which the nation’s gods get a chance to reject us. Since they’re not real, we are not particularly worrried.
  8. Tarcuna, smelling considerably of soap and perfume, and I, smelling considerably of tired drake and no sex, fly on to Patthakadu. Of course Arilash’s the Melismatic Tempest has worn off, so the trip takes over a day and many broken ribs thanks to the utterly cursed the Dozenwing Dozentail.

Which, unfortunately, makes it one of the best-conceived and best-executed plans we have ever devised.

We have been given the Imperial Patthakadu Cavalry Academy as our home for the next few years. Convenient, I suppose, because cavalry hasn’t been used in the army in over a century, so they had just started shutting the academy down. (Damma doesn’t make changes over-hastily.) By the time I got there, the others had voted four to zero that everyone would look like themselves, with none of the size-changes that satisfied absolutely nobody in Dorday.

“That’s fine,” I said.

“So we’re sleeping in the buildings that are big enough for us to sleep in,” said Nrararn apologetically.

“I can concede that there might be some advantage to that approach, compared to the possibility of sleeping in buildings that we do not fit in,” I said.

“Well, you might want to sleep out of doors for a few weeks, even though it rains every night,” said Nrararn, as he showed me to my sleeping chamber. Which was a stable, again. The Royal Stable in Strobland had had a floor of mighty flagstones, tilted and drained, and washed every day by heroic Stroblander stable hands. The Imperial Patthakadu Cavalry Academy was built and maintained to different standards. The floors were dirt. Dirt packed by centuries of hoven hooves and horse hooves, to be sure. Dirt cleaned by Dammese peasants, who, as far as I could tell, had not been heroic. I didn’t dare go in.

“I’ll either sleep outdoors, or bite my tongue off so I can’t smell it,” I said. “Can’t you use some sky magic to air it out a bit?”

Nrararn’s tail drooped. “I tried most of yesterday.” He pointed a wing to the other side of the parade ring. “That is no longer a stinking barn.”

“It is no longer a barn at all,” I pointed out. The boards of its walls and roof were scattered over a hundred yards, and a dozen peasants were gathering them.

“Yet, it still stinks,” said Nrararn sadly. “Csirnis is trying to arrange for some tents.”

I flomped on the well-horsed ground. “Csirnis should arrange to bite off the prime minister’s toes. This isn’t much of a place to live, compared to the Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium.”

Nrararn trickled his foreclaws over my head tenderly. (I thought for a while and decided to take it as a comforting gesture rather than an utterly unnecessary and inexcusable bit of ignoring my basic flaw. I was too tired to have a proper fight.) “I’m sorry, Jyothky. Csirnis is arranging to get new buildings built, actually.

“I suppose that’s more practical than biting off toes,” I said.

By eveningtime, two big tents had been procured. Nrararn and Arilash shared one of them, vigorously. Csirnis and Osoth shared the other, chastely. I turned into a seabird and slept on the back of a chair in Tarcuna’s dorm room, also chastely.

We should have stayed in Dorday.

I Win The Sex Contest! (Day 188)

Arilash and I had a sex contest today and I won!

We were at the Erotic Temple of Patthakara, all devoted to hovens mating with each other for the glory of some of their gods. I don’t understand the theology one bit. And I got the devious idea. I said, “Arilash! We have three males here, for a total of nine male members! That’s an odd number! I challenge you thus: Each member will be used once, by one of us. Whoever has used more of them in the end, wins!”

Well, she could hardly refuse that contest! And it was sort of a performance piece, it fit the style of the Patthakara complex quite nicely. We had grosses of hovens watching us, just sitting on the steps of the temple or under the spreading uulama trees, eating their picnics and watching and sometimes filming.

I am the devious little dragoness though! I made sure that Arilash got two turns with Csirnis, on the larger and thus slower two hemipenes. Csirnis does not do things by halves. He does not rush. He can be quite distracting, in the most pleasant way, to a dragoness who is capable of feeling his distractions. I am not nearly so pleasant. I hope not unpleasant — the ghee helps a good deal, and after the first few rounds I was quite sloppy and sloshy with drake-juices anyways. Nor so distractable: I kept an eye on Arilash, though she mostly had eyes for her drake-of-the-moment.

Anyways, when I had finished my fourth twine, which was with Osoth, Arilash and Csirnis were all lovingly tangled up together, their tails flopping in the reflecting pool, and they looked as if they’d be glad to enjoy each other for another hour or two. So I grinned at Nrararn, and called him over, and he was my fifth round.

And when Arilash and Csirnis finished, my rival knew that she had been defeated in a contest in her area of strength.

By my superior powers of arithmetic.

(I doubt that I’ll ever win a sex contest again. I’ve managed to twine the three drakes maybe half a dozen times since the Hide and Seek game, total, compared to Arilash’s keeping them all pretty happy for most of that time.)

Oh, well, I do what I can do. I’m pretty sure that everyone enjoyed the contest, anyways.

Fury! (Day 274)

I am so angry.

Two days ago, Tarcuna sort of vanished. One of the servants told me she had gone off with an appealingly spherical local woman, and said to tell me she’d be back in a few days. I didn’t much blame her. She’s rather bored here, being my retainer in a situation where I don’t need retaining. There aren’t even many books in Trestean to be had. She’s trying to learn Petty Draconic — but we don’t have any books in that — and trying to learn any of the Dammese languages at the same time wouldn’t be easy.

I mostly hoped that her romances were going better than mine.

This afternoon, one of the servants gave me a telegraph.

First of all, the telegraph was in a hybrid of Petty Draconic and Ghemelian, rendered as well as possible (not very!) in squirmy Dammese characters. I had to use the Word-Fox several times to make sense out of it.

Dear Jyothky,

I hope that the circumstances of your mating flight have become more pleasant than in the early phases. I offer my condolences for the death of Greshthanu and the departure of Tultamaan, though I hope that the composition and character of your remaining harem of suitors is more to your liking, and that you have found sufficient means for satisfying interdraconic relationships despite your technical difficulties.

It is my unfortunate obligation to inform you that my slaves have kidnapped your companion Tarcuna and brought her to the Pit of Despair Prison in downtown Ghemel. I completely acknowledge that this is unconscionably rude, though I hope it stops short of the start of outright hostilities. I need to invite you, in person, alone, to the Pit of Despair Prison (the name is inherited from the days of Uncle Holder and is no longer strictly accurate). It goes without saying that Tarcuna will be released unharmed into your custody as soon as possible, unless truly regrettable circumstances compel otherwise.

In any case, I look forward to greeting you at the Pit of Despair, and proferring my most sincere and spirit-felt (for I lack an actual heart) apologies for my actions. Please be aware that I have collected the most valuable and portable treasures of Ghemel in the Pit of Despair, and am prepared to emphasize my apology which any or all of them.

I’m afraid that the invitation is for yourself alone. We cannot accomodate even a single dragon more in suitable style, although, should uninvited guests arrive, the divine magic of Mhel combines with Hove’s military science exceedingly well. It might well suffice to discourage unanticipated guests. It will certainly suffice to kill a hoven already in our clutches. This inhospitality, though regrettable and indeed regretted, is quite temporary. After events have completely satisfied their evolution, you and your companions may help yourselves to the valuables of Ghemel with my (admittedly vile) blessing.

Your regrettably wicked friend,
Xolgrohim

The primary fury: My friend Xolgrohim — or self-proclaimed friend Xolgrohim — has kidnapped my second-best friend in anywhere, and is using her as bait to lure me into a trap! Aside from the obvious difficulties and inconvenience of that, I do not approve of my friends behaving badly towards each other.

The secondary fury: After a bit of consideration, I can’t tell my mating flight about it. I would lose so many fiancée points, there’d be no counting them. I’m sure I could find something more humiliating to do than announce to everyone that I had lost track of my pet hoven and they had to go rescue her. I can’t think of what, though.

Still, I am not without resources.

«Ythac? Do you have time to chat?»

«Only if it’s supremely urgent do I have time this hour, and you and Llredh are the only two who can call on that degree of urgency. Can it wait for an hour and a third?» he answered, and his mindwriting looked a bit ragged.

«It can wait that long, Ythac.» Flying to Ghemel would take much more than an hour and a third.

I’m not a complete idiot. (Eleven-twelfths an idiot I will grant you without the least bit of argument.) I wrote the mating flight a detailed note about what I was doing, and gave it to a slow but reliable servant to copy several times and send to everyone through the slow but unreliable Damman postal system.

So: fly, fly, fly. I had lots of time to think, and not much else to do. I made a few guesses about Xolgrohim’s plans and intentions.

Nearly an hour later, over one of Damma’s interminable jungles: «Right. Executions are properly arranged and sentences commuted for tomorrow. What did you want, Jyothky? Your words looked worried.»

«I am worried.» … and I transcribed Xolgrohim’s whole telegram to him.

«Well, that’s not good,» he wrote back.

«That it is not,» I answered.

«No — what’s not good is that Tarcuna is hidden from finding spells. I can’t help very much from here.»

«Oh, that is bad. I didn’t know paingods could do that,» I said.

«I didn’t either. I wish I could give you useful clues here, Jyothky, but I don’t have many. Do you want Llredh and me to come with you?»

«I do, but I don’t know whether or not it’s a good idea. If he’s being honest, he’s not going to hurt me, and he’d try to kill you if you came.»

«What makes you say that?»

«My best guess is, he’s trying to kill my parents for killing him. Osoth didn’t exactly say very much about it, but that sounds like a very undead reason to do something like this.»

«That’s one possibility. Maybe he’s just trying to get revenge however he can. Killing his killer’s child might satisfy him just as well as killing his killers would.»

I had been avoiding thinking about that option. «Probably that’s not it.» I waved some textual exegesis of bits of the telegraph at him. Unpersuasively, since we weren’t sure that anything was compelling Xolgrohim to be truthful.

«So, the only thing we’re pretty sure of is that Xolgrohim is trying to kill some dragons. Maybe you, maybe your parents. Maybe your parents preferably, but failing that, you. So I am not particularly happy about you flying there alone,» Ythac wrote. «Fiancée points won’t do you much good if you’re dead. If Arilash or anyone is paying any attention to them, which I doubt.»

I scribbled «Well, find out what weapons he’s got for me, and I’ll do something appropriate.»

«The most appropriate thing would be to leave your hoven there. Poor Tarcuna, but you’re a lot more important than she is.» Which is both sensible and true, but I was having none of it. So Ythac poked at the Mystery Zone with his best far-range information spells, but Xolgrohim had blocked them. «That’s all I can do from here. If I were nearby, I could do a lot more.»

«So come nearby,» I wrote back.

«You don’t mind? You’re flying off like some heroine from before the astral era. Thought you might want to do it alone.»

«Esrret’s star! I want whatever help I can get! Besides, you had better help me for your own sake. Your parents offended him nearly as much as mine did. If we let him live succeed this time, he’ll be after you next. With more expertise for him, and fewer allies for you. You and Llredh had better be flying right outside the Mystery Zone, ready to swoop in for rescue or revenge!»

«Hold on … » I waited a while. «Llredh says that yes, he’d absolutely rather fight an undead paingod than spend a single hour more on the new constitution.»

Which sounds like a plan to me, and a better one than flying into the Pit of Despair all alone.

(Day 277)

There wasn’t any great hurry to rescue Tarcuna, not really. Xolgrohim didn’t much want to kill her, we guessed. If he did want to (or anything else), he would have done it already.

“Unless he is trying to bring you woe, Jyothky. Or give you a distracting fury,” said Ythac.

“I don’t think he actually hates me,” I argued. “My parents, certainly, they killed him. Killing me would annoy them a little. Killing my hoven friend whom they’ve never met wouldn’t bother them at all.”

“I should go in there with you,” said Ythac. “Xolgrohim won’t want to kill me. If he hates my father too — and he ought to — killing me would only save my father the trouble.”

“Have you heard from Rankotherium?” I asked.

“I’ve told my mother about Llredh. She’s not very happy. I don’t know if she’s told my father or not. Let’s think about your lich-god problem now, please, Jyothky?”

But there wasn’t very much we could do from outside the Mystery Zone. Except to stare at the Mystery Zone itself. It was a sticky dysparallel mess of astral magic, a rough hypersphere woven of loose burlappy cables, mostly for detection, and shot through with the scratchy tin wires of painspells. Blinding-spells grew like stinking mushrooms here and there, mostly around the Pit of Despair and one of the palaces, blocking many of Ythac’s attempts to discover anything. (But we had excellent maps, made during Trest’s invasion and occuption, current up to and excluding the capture and enslavement of both countries by astral monsters from beyond the curve of the universe.) Nothing was terribly strong, but there was a lot of it — and we felt the theoceptive prickling of the loose god about. And of course it wasn’t that much like dragon magic, and we had only a loose idea of exactly how it would behave.

Ythac and Llredh insisted on doing every kind of research they could think of. So we interrogated some terrified local farmers, thus:

All three of us landed in a triangle around a lentil-field where barehoofed peasants labored in thick mud. Llredh roared, “Innocent farmers! Fearing and fleeing, you must do neither of these!”

The most organized and clever of the peasants tried to figure out what Llredh had said. The rest, naturally, tried to run away from him. Ythac and I blocked them with wings and tails and such. “Please don’t run away. We just want to ask you a few questions about what’s happened in Ghemel. We’ll pay for the information, in healing.”

After two-thirds of an hour of determined, iron-willed, fierce peasant calming, punctuated with healing sunburn, blisters, day-old scorpion stings, and a lost finger that wasn’t going to grow back but didn’t need to be infected about it, we had three peasants to talk to. And a dozen others to farm desultorily and pretend they could rescue their friends if they got into trouble.

“What happened in Ghemel?”, we asked.

“Don’t know for certain,” they said. “All we know is, anyone who crosses Pran ad’Darak Street screams and screams like they was being boiled alive or something, then turns and walks into the city and never comes back out.”

“We’ve seen hovens walking around in the city. Do you know what goes on in there?”, we asked.

“Not for sure ‘n certain, that we don’t. My cousin says they’re mostly building things in there,” said the youngest informant.

“What does your cousin know that you don’t?”

“Probably a lot, if it please you. He’s been in there since nearly the beginning, and he’s important in there,” said the informant.

Well, that was interesting. “You can talk to people inside?”

“Oh, sure. We bring food and things to Damarrhu Market, just on this side of Pran ad’Darak, and people from the city come out and buy it. Sometimes they stay and talk. Not like proper people visiting their friends on market day, they won’t sit down and drink mint tea and sit and catch up with old friends. But they’ll say a few words,” said our peasant.

“And what do they say?”

“Well, Murghal neng Nhestravvath came back from the desert with a doomsome demon as an ally. He’s harnessed everyone in the city up with pain. If they don’t do exactly what he says, right prompt, they hurt so bad that they’d cut their throat with a hacksaw to make it feel better. I know that for a fact. Murghal made some of the Trestean soldiers do it in the grand square, my cousin says. He was terrible before, now he is a thousand times terrible.”

Llredh refurrowed the lentil-field with a foreclaw. “My soldiers and my husband’s soldiers, that is who these soldiers that Murghal kills are! With Murghal, with Xolgrohim, there will be a reckoning and a night of fire! What hoven, what god, contends against me and endures? There is none! There can be none!”

“I go first,” I said. “Those soldiers were never yours; Murghal took them before you conquered Trest. Tarcuna was mine before that, even. So I have precedence.”

“I cede precedence!” roared Llredh. “But what of Murghal you do not destroy, that much is mine to destroy!”

“Especially if I get killed or captured,” I said.

Llredh breathed his assent as a column of flame, pouring miles into the sky, and most of the peasants fled. Ythac watched his husband. “Llredh, I was not sure until this very moment if they knew we were out here.”

“Bah! Drakes and dragonesses, we are these! The dead god should quail and cower before us!”

“The dead god is well-prepared, and intentionally tugged Jyothky’s tail to get her here. I don’t think he’ll be quailing or cowering very much,” said Ythac quietly.

“Then he knows we are here! Or if not for certain, than he acts as if we were!” roared Llredh. “The secrecy for sneaking and creeping around in private, we never had her!”

“Very comforting, Llredh. I’ll go round up our peasants again. Maybe they can tell us more,” I said, and did, which wasn’t so easy.

“Llredh is very angry at Murghal,” I said. “Llredh is the dragon who conquered Trest, too. I don’t think Murghal will be around much longer. ”

The peasants allowed as how that might be a good thing. “He won’t let us leave here, anyways, and he won’t pay for food for the city.”

“How does he keep you?”

“Cross the Bul Alen river and it hurts. Don’t bring food to the market, and it hurts,” said the peasant.

“Typical paingod approach to economics … The more you can tell us about what’s going on in there, the less we’ll have to wreck … and the less chance we’ll have of killing your cousin.”

Which uncalmed the peasant rather. “Why are you killing my cousin? Murghal is doing that already!”

“Is he alive or dead?” Ghemelian uses different verb forms for the two, and the cousin had been getting the living forms. Fortunately we didn’t need to talk about Xolgrohim much with the peasants; I don’t know what verb forms to use for the living dead.

“My cousin Khudris is big, my cousin Khudris is strong, my cousin Khudris is tough from farming and farming! So Murghal called him to the Pit of Despair Hospital two months ago and did a fearsome surgery upon him! Now loops of shining grey metal sprout out around his spine, spikes of metal from his shoulders, barbs pierce his cheeks, gemstones are his eyes, stained-glass lamps his ears!”

Ythac and Llredh and I looked at each other. “Really? Why on Hove would he do a thing like that? Did your cousin Khudris offend him and need to be tortured? — but that sounds like a very strange and difficult torture. A paingod must have easier, cheaper ones.”

“My cousin says that he has been made a god himself! I think he has been! He bought a thousandweight of beans and tomatoes. No cart brought he! He spread his arms and the beans and tomatoes floated over him, and he walked them thus into the tortured city!” said the peasant.

“Niobium Apotheosis Coils,” said Ythac.

“What?” said Llredh and I.

“It sounds like the technology that the mhelvul used to become gods, before our parents conquered Mhel,” said Ythac. “Of course Xolgrohim knows how to do it; he was one of those gods. It’s sort of like the Great Separation for us: a few mhelvul survived, but they gained a presence in the astral realm.”

“So I’m not facing one god in there. I’m facing … dozens? hundreds?”

“You had better go as soon as you can, Jyothky,” said Ythac, arching his head over to me.

I bopped him on the muzzle with my left ear. “You’re that eager to get rid of me?”

“I’m thinking that a new-made god isn’t going to be that skilled with his powers. How good were you a month or two after your Great Separation, after all?”

“Terrible. I was mostly throwing tantrums about not being able to feel anymore,” I said. “I didn’t want to learn magic.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you missed it,” said Ythac.

“Oh, I’ve been complaining about it constantly in my diary … Actually, Ythac, do me another favor?” I fished my diary — not including this entry — out, and gave it to him. “If I die, and anyone misses me, have them read this. It’s the diary.”

We embraced in the lane outside the lentil fields, while Llredh and some wondering peasants looked on. No, not that kind of embrace.

Just a farewell kind.


Into the Trap

I flew straight and fast to the Pit of Despair Prison; secrecy seemed pointless. I wore every defensive spell that Llred or Ythac or I could cast, and scribbled notes to Ythac constantly. Like, «Ghemel looks worse every time I fly over it. Xolgrohim’s been ripping homes down and building factories and smelting plants.» Not that I particularly needed the distraction, but if I got killed, best if Ythac knew what was going on for purposes of revenge.

«I wish I could find out why that was,» wrote Ythac. Information mages always hate not knowing things.

«I’ll ask him if I see him,» I scribbled back.

And there was the Pit of Despair Prison: a huge complex surrounded by thin walls of powdery stone pierced by several roads. There was a great deal of new construction, mostly in a ring around the Pit of Despair proper, and the air stank of iron and oil-smoke and chemicals, and the despair of hovens. The trap proper was nicely marked, with a big sign on a building saying “Welcome, Jyothky. This way to Tarcuna.”

The arrow pointed down into the pit.

I circled the prison in the air, watching, thinking. Well, I could … Destroy all the surrounding buildings? and maybe kill Tarcuna if she’s being kept there. Oh, and certainly kill lots of Xolgrohim’s hoven pawns. Turn into something tiny and try to infiltrate? Silly at this point, and undignified. Ask Ythac? «Sorry, no good advice,» was his answer.

«I’m just going to follow the arrow and fly into the trap,» I said. So I tried. Actually I had to land on a conveniently placed and non-dangerous ledge and climb down, since the pit wasn’t big enough for much flapping of wings and I didn’t want to use a levitation spell that anygod could swat away and tumble me inelegantly into the pit. They had conveniently installed a very solid wooden staircase, with heavy beams stuck out of the steel-clad walls of the pit, just big enough for me, so this was obviously part of Xolgrohim’s plan.

As I climbed down, I heard a tremendous grinding of gears from overhead. Three huge metal jaws were closing off the top of the Pit of Despair, snipping me off from the light of Virtuet. «I think I know what Xolgrohim has been foundering,» I told Ythac.

«Foundreying. Yes, it sounds that way. There’s your trap, I guess.»

«Not much of a trap, if that’s all. Those doors won’t be a dozenth as hard to melt as Kuhankun Mountain,» I wrote.

«If that’s all, yes,» wrote Ythac. «Keep your nineteen senses up, OK?»

«All of them? I am nibbling on the wall now. Yummy!» I wrote. I wasn’t, and it wasn’t.

The spiral staircase took seven turns around. At the second turn, Tarcuna called up to me: “Jyothky! You came!”

“Oh, hi, Tarcuna. Nice to see you!”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t, actually,” she said.

I strolled down the staircase, my tail thumping on the wall. “Oh? Got a better companion than an alien monster who mostly ignores you?”

“No, I still love you. But I’m pretty sure this is a trap,” she said.

“Absolutely, it’s a trap. Did you see the poster, and the doors closing?”

Metal slammed against metal, twice, and hoofsteps tapped out on the pit’s floor below. Someone shouted up, “I am afraid that, yes, it is a trap. Please don’t be offended.” The voice sounded half-familiar.

“Xolgrohim, is that you?” I asked, and looked down. It was Murghal. Rather, it was Murghal’s body, with a heavy sevenfold cable of bitter sorcery wrapped around it and trailing off into the distance, and tenasensitive signs of strain everywhere. “Or Murghal?”

“Xolgrohim, using Murghal’s body,” he said, and I saw the cables twitch with each word. “Perhaps I could explain the conditions of the trap in a bit more detail, to start with, and thereby avoid or at least postpone unpleasantness?”

“Nice little puppet you’ve got there,” I said. The stairs ended thirty feet above the floor, so I leapt down to the middle of the clear half of the room. It wasn’t safe, but its loud hiss of menace was all potential. Tarcuna ran over and hugged my foreleg, and I folded a wing around her protectively.

“Well, the most important thing to remember about the trap is the walls. I know you could burn your way out of anything on Hove. But these walls are special. They are a sandwich. The outer layers are steel — enough steel, I believe, so that you cannot easily claw or bite your way through them; you will have to breathe. The inner layer is a very insidious sort of filling. It is ampoules of various chemicals. If you burn them, or pierce them, they will form any number of fearsome toxic vapors, which flood the pit. I am not sure if they will kill you or not, though they are quite strong. They will certainly kill Tarcuna,” said Xolgrohim, in a smallish voice.

“So I shouldn’t grab Tarcuna and burn my way out of here,” I said, and relayed Xolgrohim’s words to Ythac.

“Exactly! I knew you would be sensible!” he beamed. “Now, the floor.”

“The very dangerous floor,” I said, since dangersense was rather howling about it.

“Don’t listen to him! It’s twistor guns!” shouted Tarcuna.

“Excuse me, Tarcuna, but I am having a conversation with Jyothky at the moment. You should not interrupt,” said Xolgrohim.

“Actually, I am at least as interested in what Tarcuna has to say as in what you have to say,” I told him.

Xolgrohim smiled apologetically. “Very well then! Feel free to interrupt as you wish, Tarcuna. The floor is very thin, just big enough to support you and the other contents of the room. Beneath it are three of the largest twistor projectors I could manage in the few months that I had available to me. They are not, unfortunately, up to the standards of the Peace Everywhere Array, though they do have a range of some dozens or hundreds of miles. At a word to my gunners, though, they will entirely fill the Pit of Despair with torque. I do not know for certain that even that will kill you, but I rather suspect it might. I am certain about what it will do to poor, interrupt-prone Tarcuna.”

“I have destroyed many large twistor guns,” I said.

“And no doubt you could destroy these as well! But they are arranged so that any destruction of the gun itself will also set off the torque battery. Again, that might not kill you, but it will be a remarkably potent occurrence, which Tarcuna may find unfavorable,” said Xolgrohim.

I thought about the devastation that even a single battery had caused: more dangerous than my strongest breath by far. “An excellent precaution! When I destroyed the Peace Everywhere Array, I worked from a distance, but in your poison-walled pit, that approach is not available.”

He beamed. “Exactly. Exactly! It is a pleasure working with you, Jyothky.”

“What, precisely, do you mean by ‘working’?”

Ythac’s wrote to me in letters jagged with alarm, «Jyothky! Dragons!» Xolgrohim said something too, but I didn’t catch it.

«Who? Arilash and Csirnis?»

«No, no, the sky over Khamrou Voresc is crawling with dragons. More than a dozen of them.»

«Oh, dear. Send them my greetings, I suppose. At least can you find out who they are?» I looked back at Xolgrohim. “I’m sorry, but I was lost in thought for a moment. Could you repeat that?”

“Well, I don’t specifically want to catch you, Jyothky. Your parents killed me, as you may recall. It is certainly a flaw in my personality — I regard it as such in any case — but I cannot refrain from trying to kill them in exchange. Or, failing that, to bring them whatever degree of sorrow and woe I can.”

“Jyothky won’t cooperate with you!” shouted Tarcuna.

“I certainly don’t want to make my parents unhappy, or dead,” I said. “Nor you, nor myself.”

“If you risk your own life to save mine, I am going to kill myself!” said Tarcuna.

“You have the oddest concept of helping me, Tarcuna,” I said. “Please, let’s let Xolgrohim tell us his plans before anyone kills herself to foil them?” She threw herself to the metal floor by my feet, stinking of anger and shame.

“Now that you have, temporarily, subdued our loquacious and lecherous lure, may I explain your role in the upcoming festivities?” asked Xolgrohim.

«Tultamaan’s back. Chevethna back from her mating flight, Arthane flying next to her so I bet they’re married, Ignissa back from her mating flight, Vuuthon, Ressal, … Kuro for heaven’s sake, … lots of dragons I don’t know,» wrote Ythac.

«That’s bad,» I said. That many dragons my age, already mated, are probably here for conquering.

“I should be fascinated to hear it,” I said. I curled my tail around Tarcuna, and cast the Library in Scales and wrote to her, «After he has finished, we will discuss our next step privately. Now please let’s listen. I’m trying to write to Ythac too, and if I’m not careful I’m going to get horribly confused.»

«Bad, bad. I’m holding territory now. It might be me and Llredh against fifteen of our age-peers,» wrote Ythac.

«Well. Ressal and Tultamaan barely count. And I’ll help you when I get out of here,» I said.

“All right, all right, I’ll be quiet,” said Tarcuna. “For now. If you’re going to kill me, Xolgrohim, I at least get to tell you what I think of you first.” She cuddled into the arc of my tail.

«Four to one is certainly an improvement over seven to one. Are you getting out soon?» asked Ythac.

Xolgrohim spread Murghal’s hands apologetically. “For the moment, I simply request that you — both of you — remain in the Pit of Despair. My part-time messenger on Mhelvul should earn his extravagant pay soon, or so I hope, and your parents should arrive within, perhaps, a day or two? You know them better than I do: how long would you guess they would delay when their darling daughter is in deadly danger?”

I paused, as if to consider the question, but actually to write «Not sure. I might need to do something stupid and humiliating, like promise to come right back after the fight,» Then I said, out loud, “Last time, they came in a hurry, but that was easier. They’d have to get directions here, and find someone to cast the Triangular Cyclonette. And probably another day or several to learn it, so they can get back afterwards,” I said.

Xolgrohim laughed. “Yes, I suppose they might think that getting back would be relevant to them and make arrangements. No more hurry than that?”

“I suppose it depends on what your messenger told them, and how much they believed it.”

“My powers of sending messages between worlds are not so great, and neither are Tultamaan’s. He was supposed to tell Cterion and Uruunma that you had been trapped in the heart of a vast ruby, which your companions’ fire was inadequate to melt but which Cterion’s own flame probably could. He sent back the chirp that he was to send when he had done so.”

I stared at Xolgrohim. He lowered Murghal’s gaze, and apologized, “I merely sought some story which would require their presence, and not raise too many suspicions about the actual situation.”

I was still staring. “You got Tultamaan as your messenger?”, I said out loud, and summarized the matter to Ythac.

“Regular couriers between here and Mhel are infrequent, and their rates are extravagant! There is rarely one available when you want one,” Xolgrohim explained.

“We haven’t particularly wanted to send many messages back. Arilash told Greshthanu’s parents that he had been killed, is the only one. Plus whatever Tultamaan wanted to say,” I said.

“Which, I believe, included a dramatization of your capture. Ah, and speaking of that regrettably brutal event, perhaps I shall return to my catalog of brutalities and menaces?” asked the lich-god. Neither of us stopped him. “Well, then, there are few other points of note. Observe the ventilation ducts there, and the servant’s entrance by which we provide food and cleaning services? They cannot, inherently, be as well-armored as the walls proper. Nonetheless they are well-defended, by means of mighty electrical currents. Behind them are no fewer than three deified hovens on guard, one of whom was once an enhanced agent of Trest. Even you might find them troublesome in battle.”

I opened my organs of theoception, and yes, the place was crawling with minor gods. “Why are you boasting about all of them? You’re just giving me that much of an easier time defeating them,” I asked. Which was a stupid question — I should have let him explain.

“Ah, but I hope that my precautions are never actually necessary. If they are tested, they may succeed, or they may fail; in either case it will be expensive and may well interfere with my ultimate wishes. If they are untested, they will not fail. I should prefer that you know enough not to make the attempt. Your immediate death would not serve me well.”

“My immediate death…?”

He smiled. “Well, one possible outcome is that Cterion and Uruunma remain too powerful for me to defeat, even with the tools currently at my disposal. I should be compelled, in that case, to inflict whatever injuries I could arrange, before they inevitably kill me again. Killing you holds no intrinsic pleasure for me, but killing you in front of their eyes would be a passable second choice. And, in case it is not clear, killing you before they arrive would be a distinctly inferior third choice, but still provide a form of revenge. So do not take my wish to preserve your life as too much of an encouragement to attempt to fight your way out of the Pit.”

«Time for me to be a bit crafty,» I wrote to Tarcuna. Out loud, I said, “So, either I can try to escape and your traps and gods might kill me, or I can stay and you probably will kill me.”

“I should judge the probabilities in the reverse,” he said. “My traps and gods will probably kill you. If you stay, I might kill you.”

“You underestimate both me and my parents!”

“Forgive me! I withdraw all measures of probability! In either case, it is possible but not certain that you will be killed.”

I spread my ears. “Well, then. Give me some extra reason to want to say!”

“Observe the caskets and armoires behind you,” Xolgrohim said with a wave. “The contain many treasures of Ghemelia…” He yelped as I breathed sparks at him.

I snarled. “Treasure-hunting is for drakes. I am a dragoness. This attempt to bribe me is an insult to my future husband!”

“I meant no offense! I am regrettably ignorant of draconic etiquette!”

I towered over the body my captor wore. “No, I want something else. Something that you alone can provide.”

Murghal flattened his ears in fear, but Xolgrohim, being far away, was not much impressed. “My resources are at your disposal, save for certain necessities — large of a martial nature — I wish to keep for my own purposes…”

“I haven’t felt anything since I was six years old,” I said. “I miss it, as much as you miss life itself. And your powers concern the sense of feeling.”

Xolgrohim dipped Murghal’s head. “With all due respect, my specialty is pain. I have a limited selection of spells for pleasure, but they are not my strongest.”

“Start with them!” I roared.

“Certainly,” he said, and concocted a gleaming clove-scented lump of (metaphorically) lace and crumbs on the astral plane and stretched out his hand to put it in my head. I reared my vô away to let him do it. It sat right in the chasm in my psyche where feeling ought to go.

“Is it in?” I asked.

“I have activated it. Do you feel anything? A sensation as of a thousand mhelvul lips kissing you everywhere, perhaps?”

“Not a thing,” I said. “Pity. You’ll have to try harder.”

He tried harder, indeed, did Xolgrohim. He chanted and wriggled Murghal’s fingers. He danced the most ominious jig that I could imagine a hoven dancing. He called for skull rattles and a necklace of bloodied feathers, and built a bonfire of wood and the bones of ancient kings. Astrally, he brought forth huge spiky things that stank astrally of asafoedita and terror, and I let him put them into me, too.

Finally one worked, at least a little. The forks of my tongue felt as if they had been dipped in fire.

There’s no describing it. Not the sensation itself, you can probably understand that unless you’re one of the pawful of dragons injured the way I am. You’re probably thinking, “Ow, pain.” But you are too used to pain, too used to feeling anything.

This was the best thing I had felt in five dozen years. (Yes, also the worst, but that didn’t matter.) It was all I could do not to roll around in happiness. Not pleasure, just happiness.

«Remind me that I should marry Osoth, so he can raise up a tame paingod for me,» I asked Tarcuna.

«I don’t much like paingods,» she said. «Aren’t they dangerous?»

«Probably it’s a bad idea,» I wrote. I grinned a huge grin at Xolgrohim. “Well, that one worked, a little bit.”

“A little bit!” he exclaimed. “I have no stronger spells!”

“You couldn’t impose pain on a stone,” I said, “And my body’s not much more than a stone, as far as sensation goes. But my tongue is a bit less broken than the rest of me.”

“I am sorry, then, that that spell is the only one that works! If, at some future time, you wish to ransom my non-life, I offer to try to develop a spell that provides more pleasant sensations,” he said.

So I yelled at him about how this was the best thing I had felt in five duodecades, and all of that.

“This is not a usual reaction for a paingod’s powers!” he said. “But if you proclaim yourself satisfied, far be it from me to argue with you.” He looked at me hopefully. “So, now I have provided my best attempt at what you have requested?”

“You have done admirably,” I said, and I meant it. “So here is my promise. I shall not attempt to leave the Pit of Despair for so long as this spell lets me feel.” I spoke the ancient formula which binds us to our word on pain of dishonor. Though I did say ȑṳsṡ instead of ȑṳṡs, making the vow on pain of dumplings instead. If I ever get in the position of arguing about whether I were dishonored or not, that classic bit of sneakiness would count just a little in my favor. That wasn’t my real trick.

Xolgrohim beamed. “I am delighted that we have found a basis for temporary cooperation! I was not hoping for such amity!” He is not any sort of fool though, even if he doesn’t speak Grand Draconic, and he added: “You will, I hope, understand and forgive me if the means of imprisonment that are already in place remain in place. It would be impractical to remove them at this late date.”

Tarcuna, who maybe has picked up some Petty Draconic, looked horrified. “Jyothky! How can you make such a deal with that!”

I grinned the vicious draconic grin to her. “It’s not quite the deal he wants. I promised not to leave the Pit of Despair: nothing more. I will go kill his gods and destroy his projectors, if I can. From inside, as long as I don’t leave.” That wasn’t my real trick either.

Xolgrohim stared Murghal’s square eyes at me. “Oh, dear. I did not expect a great deal from a few words, but this is less than I might have hoped. I should have insisted on a vow of greater passivity.”

“The vow was not yours to insist upon, foolish paingod!” I thundered. Where by “foolish” I mean “clever enough to catch me in quite a nasty trap” of course.

“Well, of course. Forgive me for the suggestion that it was… and forgive me also, but I would like to remind you that the walls, weapons, and warriors of the Pit of Despair are just as deadly even though you have your vow. Indeed, the reduced flexibility of motion may make them just one bit the deadlier. So I fear that I must recommend that you stay inside of the metal prison of the Pit of Despair, even though it is not strictly required by your vows.”

“For now, I am going to enjoy being able to feel!” I roared. I can play arrogant, short-sighted, and self-centered extremely well. It’s not very far from the truth.

“I am pleased to have been of some small service to you, even though I have done a greater disservice.”

I rolled on my back and enjoyed the pain in my tongue, as long as I had it. And traded a few notes with Tarcuna and Ythac, and completely ignored Xolgrohim. After an hour or two, he politely excused himself, and departed, leaving a rather worried and utterly undefended Murghal with us in the Pit of Despair.

The next thing to do was the hardest thing I have done this whole mating flight. The last sixty years, even. I wrapped my vô around the painspell and crushed the life out of it, as if it was a baby goat in my paw. Well, breaking the spell was easy. Persuading myself to do it was hard.

And the dull blank prison of unfeelingness was back on me again.

«Did it work?» asked Tarcuna.

«Yes. No pain spell anymore. No vow anymore. And no alarms either. I don’t think Xolgrohim can tell when his spells are broken.» I wrote to her. That was my real trick. «Now, tell me about how you planned to get us out of here?»

Plotting

«How did you know I had a plan?» asked Tarcuna.

«You’ve been here for days. Of course you have a plan. I tell you now though, if it involves you getting killed for tactical purposes, I’m vetoing it,» I wrote back.

«How about a plan where you get out first, then rescue me?»

«I’d rather do it right the first time.»

«And I’m a pretty worthless hoven minion,» she said. «You’re better off without me.»

«That’s not your judgment to make. If I thought so, I’d have gotten rid of you one of the dozen or two times it was convenient and polite to do so.»

«I betrayed you!» she wrote.

Well, that could be a problem. «How did you do that?»

«Xolgrohim asked me all kinds of questions about your powers and everything. I didn’t answer, and then he did something that hurt a lot, and I had to answer,» she wrote. She snuffled a bit, so I wrapped my tail around her comfortingly.

«Well, of course. I didn’t expect that you could stand up to a god. But I am going to kill Xolgrohim for that, you know.» And on and on, comforting her, for at least twelve minutes.

She hadn’t completely broken though. She didn’t exactly lie to Xolgrohim, but she only answered his direct questions, and pretty literally at that. «Like I sort of thought you could turn into animals, but I hadn’t seen it myself, so I didn’t tell him. I don’t think you could get out of the Pit in hoven shape, but couldn’t you turn into a hummingbird and fly out?»

I looked at the roof. «There might be cracks up there I could get through.»

«I was thinking more the ventilation ducts. They’re trapped with electrical cables. But Khudris said the cables are about eight inches apart.»

I lick-groomed the last few tears off her face-fur. «Who is Khudris?» (I had forgotten about him.)

«He’s one of the Ghemelians who kidnapped me. Xolgrohim did some very strange surgery on him, and he’s got metal coils all in his back, and spikes coming out of his face, and a sort of a glass shell over most of them so they don’t get bumped. They’re very sensitive, and not in a good way.»

Which sounds like the devices of the gods of Mhel. And it stands to reason that Xolgrohim would know enough about mhelvul apotheosis technology to reconstruct it here. Which means that Khudris is a young god. «Oh! I’ll bet he’s got some spells too?»

«Yes. He puts me to sleep sometimes, and carried me floating in the air, and nobody can see us,» wrote Tarcuna.

«Convenient. But he was telling you things about the passageways while he was kidnapping you?»

«He’s one of the guards here now. He comes in here once in a while. You don’t care if I have sex with other people and anybody and don’t tell you, do you?» Tarcuna’s mental handwriting was rather wobbly.

«It’s your body. Put anyone in it that you like. Except another cyoziworm of course; that would upset me.»

She sighed, and leaned against my flank. «I thought so. I was thinking and thinking you’d be upset with me for sleeping with all of our jailors.»

«All of them?»

«All I could get. I was bored.»

«You must have been, if you’re sleeping with males.» Teasing her about that still feels very odd.

«I can be professional about it! And I can weasel information out of them when I’m sleeping with them. Besides, they’re just as much prisoners here as we are, and just as unhappy about it. Maybe more. Xolgrohim has been really brutal with the pain spells on them. On all of Ghemel. They’ve seen people, ordinary hovens like grocers or something, who said ‘no’ to Xolgrohim. He put heavier spells on them. One of them sawed through his own throat with a clothes zipper to escape the pain.» Tarcuna shuddered against my leg. «And Branner is from Trest. He’s one of the enhanced agents from the Darkness Axe helicopters. He really wants to go home, but every time he thinks about it for more than thirty seconds, the pain gets so bad he nearly faints. He was in me when that happened, once. It was awful even to watch.»

«We did Mhel a big favor when we killed all the paingods,» I said.

«Jyothky?», she wrote, in Petty Draconic. She can’t speak my name very well, but she can write it. «You broke the pain spell on yourself. Can you break pain spells on other people?»

«Sure, my vô works fine.»

«Do that on the guards, and we’ll have some allies,» said Tarcuna. «Enhanced agents and coil gods, even.»

So we made some detailed plans and told Ythac all about them. Never mind what they were, we didn’t get past about step two.

Obvious Epiphany

Tarcuna went to the servant’s entrance, and shouted, “Hey! Menes Hu, Khudris, Branner? Anyone want to have sex?”

A Ghemelian woman, spiky with her apotheosis and with the first letter of “Fool” branded on her forehead, looked in at the door, and spoke poor Trestean. “In the presence of the dragon you wish to do this?”

“Sure. I don’t mind the rest of you guys watching, do I? She’s not even a person.” Tarcuna parted her upper clothes and revealed some of her udder, more to the presumed peepholes in the walls than to Menes Hu. “C’mon, Menes Hu. You’ll enjoy it. Xolgrohim won’t let you see your husband ’til this is all over. Even then, you look so horrible and spiky he probably won’t want you. You might as well get what you can, and I guarantee I won’t make you pregnant by mistake.”

“No, no, it is an abomination.”

“Which you enjoyed a lot last time!” Tarcuna laughed.

While they were talking, I was staring. Menes Hu wore eight spells around herself. Two were obviously illusion spells, and very big ones: probably the ones that kept Ythac’s finding-spells from working. The third was probably strength, and the fourth and fifth were small ones that didn’t obviously do anything. The sixth, seventh, and eighth were jagged ones wrapped around her psyche, and they looked older than the others. So I caught them between the lobes of my vô, one at a time, and squeezed. Crunch, crunch, crunch. «I think that’s it,» I wrote to Tarcuna.

Menes Hu gasped in elation at her new freedom. This is about where our plan started falling apart.

Tarcuna thinks very quickly. “I know, I should be very quiet about that. You don’t want the others to find out.

Menes Hu stared at her, and then nodded. “It will not stay secret for long.”

Tarcuna smiled. “Well, maybe you don’t want any this time.” — she flashed her udder at the Ghemelian — “But could you tell the boys? They could get some. Of what you got that one time.”

Menes Hu dipped her head. “I will do that thing.” She stepped away from the door and urged her companions to come forward and provide to Tarcuna’s insatiable needs.

The next hoven at the door was tall and brawny, blocky and mighty, thick with muscle where most hovens have fat. Tarcuna smiled at him. “Captain Branner! Want another round of top-notch Dorday call girl?”

“Dunno the boss wants us going in there with the dragon and all, and sure thing you can’t come out here,” he said.

Tarcuna continued to be clever. “Well, I’m bored and I’m horny. How about I put on a show for you, and afterwards you put a bit of yourself through one of the peepholes and I am very nice to you that way?”

Branner chuckled. “You’re sure in a good mood…” And I broke the painspells on him, too. He shouted, “Yahoo! I am free!” Tresteans are not as used to concealing their feelings as Ghemelians.

From behind him, in the weapons and servants’ area, came a dozen hoven voices, wailing, wondering. “Xolgrohim gave us no orders for this circumstance!” shouted Menes Hu in Ghemelian. “As long as the prisoners make no attempt to escape, we don’t need to do anything!”

“It is hard not to think that it is some attempt to escape!” called another voice.

“I’m not escaping, I’m still right here in the Pit of Despair!” I roared.

“Anyone who wants to see that the dragon is just lying on the floor not doing anything at all, come look at a peephole!” shouted Tarcuna in Trestean. “Anyone who wants to kill everyone in here including yourself — why don’t you take a look too? I don’t want to die for not doing anything X